Sara Mitchell is a senior scientist who completed her undergraduate thesis, MSc and PhD here at LSTM. Sara has been fascinated by tropical diseases and mosquitoes in particular ever since she first spent time at the school almost 20 years ago when participating in work experience while at Archbishop Blanch secondary school (Liverpool). Having decided to pursue a career and degree in Biological Sciences, Sara jumped at the chance to enroll on the first Tropical Disease Biology degree program to be awarded jointly by Liverpool University and LSTM.
After her degree that she was fully hooked on mosquitoes and the disease they transmit. Sara therefore undertook her BSc in Tropical Disease Biology at the University of Liverpool, spending her third year based at LSTM where she completed her thesis on the behaviour of the Dengue vector Aedes aegypti in response to insecticide treated materials, supervised by Dr. Philip McCall, receiving a First class degree. Sara then returned to LSTM to complete her MSc in Biology and Control of Parasites and Disease Vectors (2005-2006) where she completed a thesis analysing age and genotype contribution to transcriptional variance in adult Anopheles gambiae, supervised by Professor Martin Donnelly and Dr Pie Muller. Sara then went on to complete her PhD, on molecular mechanisms underlying insecticide resistance phenotypes in the major malaria vector, Anopheles gambiae sensu strictu, for which she was supervised by Prof. Martin Donnelly, Prof. Hillary Ranson and Prof. Janet Hemingway, graduating in 2011. While at LSTM, Sara was awarded the Rhodes Gilles scholarship in 2005, the Jervis Prize for the highest MSc grade in 2006, and the LSTM award for the best PhD presentation in 2011.
Since leaving LSTM, Sara has gone on to an exciting career in vector research. She has worked as a Post-Doctoral Research Associate with Flaminia Catteruccia at Imperial College, London, who she then went on to work with as a Research Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts until 2016 studying the molecular basis of mating and reproduction in both male and female Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes. Sara then moved to work for Verily Life Sciences in San Francisco, California, where she is Senior Scientist on a project called ‘Debug’ – a vector control initiative led by Google which uses the Sterile Insect Technique to reduce vector populations. Sara has worked on a number of published papers, as well as speaking at several conferences.
- What made you choose to continue your studies at LSTM, completing both your MSc and PhD here at LSTM?
As a Liverpool Native, I was aware of LSTM’s prestige and history since I was a child. In secondary school at Archbishop Blanch, which until recently was just up the road from LSTM, I decided biology was my calling. At 16 I had to choose a work experience placement, luckily my friend Caroline had a connection to a biology lab at LSTM, it was her uncle Ken Sherlock. Caroline and I spent two placements working at the school in the insectaries with Ken and the diagnostic labs with Maria. It was such an exciting and interesting place to be, surrounded by strange parasites and mosquitoes - I was hooked! I have very fond memories of being introduced to the stool sample fridge by Maria! and accidentally releasing mosquitoes in the lab when we were trying to dissect them! I decided to pursue a biology degree and serendipitously the year I was applying to university LSTM and Liverpool were offering a joint degree in Tropical Disease Biology. I enjoyed my degree immensely and my time at LSTM, working on Aedes in the Vector group. Pursuing an MSc was a logical next step for me, I wanted to learn more about disease vectors and the parasites they carry. My MSc thesis focused again on mosquitoes, Anopheles this time, and I knew I wanted to get my PhD in mosquito biology. I also wanted to get some real-world experience of mosquitoes in field and I was able to travel with an LSTM group to Ghana, West Africa, on a mosquito collection trip prior to starting my PhD. I loved the field work, it put everything I had done up to that point in context, and cemented my determination to get my PhD.
- How do you think your time at LSTM has gone on to shape your career?
My time at LSTM has been hugely influential. LSTM was a big part of all my scientific training, which I am very thankful for. I was able to work with leading scientists in the field of mosquito biology, who dedicated time to teach me techniques, encouraged me to develop my critical thinking and also provided mentoring and friendship. My career to date is a reflection of the great education I had at LSTM. I am immensely proud to have trained at LSTM and I regularly recommend people to look think about LSTM when considering post-graduate or post-doctoral work. Working within the vector group has also driven my scientific interest in applied research, I love to see bench science really applied to the field. In my current position at Verily I am working on just that, developing sterile insects in the lab and deploying them in the field to hopefully have a real impact on vector populations and disease transmission.
- How would you sum up your experience of LSTM?
The most challenging and most enjoyable period of my life. LSTM is responsible for my career, which I love, and for so many great friends.
- What motivates you in your work?
I have always been fascinated by mosquitoes and how such a diminutive animal is still a scourge on society despite our best efforts. Mosquitoes adapt to their surrounding incredibly quickly, whether it be mutations conferring insecticide resistance or adaptation which expand the natural habitats. I want to understand what makes them so effective at what they do and try and develop clever and informed ways to stop them. I really enjoy taking work from the bench to the field and seeing positive results from an initial theoretical idea.
- What is your proudest achievement, and what do you hope to go on to achieve?
At the beginning of my PhD I went on a solo trip to Ghana, West Africa, to collect mosquito samples and test insecticide resistance levels. It was a huge responsibility for me alone to organize field collections, perform all resistance testing and process samples to bring back to LSTM. I was there for just over a month, and at times it was very challenging and I wanted to give up, especially when I succumbed to some rather unpleasant gastric illness! However, I stayed and was able to collect a dataset which provided material for the majority of my thesis and a number of scientific papers subsequently. For the future, I want to see effective and large-scale mosquito control work in the field, and I want to be a part of it.