'I want to do the science - not write about it'

September 21, 2007


Shelley Cook could have pursued a career as a professional salsa dancer or as a City consultant. Instead, after winning a £250,000 fellowship from the Wellcome Trust, she will be developing her research on the spread of deadly viruses.

Dr Cook, 30, discovered a new strain of flavivirus - a genus that includes the viruses that cause dengue and yellow fever - while still a graduate student. But she started work as a biotechnology analyst for an investment bank near the end of her doctorate.

Now, with the trust's award for postdoctoral scholars to establish independent research careers, she will be able to continue her studies of flaviviruses at a laboratory in the Natural History Museum, hoping to find out more about their emergence and spread.

And she will keep up her training as an internationally competitive salsa dancer (she is currently a European silver medallist) in the evenings.

This is the second time Dr Cook has been drawn back to research. Growing up she wanted to be a vet but became allergic to animals. She took a biology degree at Oxford University instead and later worked for a pharmaceutical company and travelled.

She returned to Oxford for her masters and doctorate but when offered the investment bank job near the end of writing up her thesis decided it was not an opportunity she could pass up.

Although she enjoyed the commercial challenges and financial benefits of the job, she could not ignore the curiosity that her research had sparked and applied for the Wellcome fellowship just under a year after her doctoral viva.

"I can't escape the fact that I want to wake up in the morning and be the person doing the science and making the discoveries rather than being the person writing about it," she says.

"You spend the first year of a PhD working everything out. In the last year, everything comes together and you get a glimpse of how satisfying research could be - and then it's all over."

The award offers her chances that few other young researchers could dream of. She will direct her own work, work out interdisciplinary collaborations with British, American and French colleagues and undertake studies in Uganda, Thailand, Mexico and Hawaii. She hopes to identify more new flavivirus trains, which could help scientists understand how viruses evolve and determine how to vaccinate against them.

"If I hadn't got the money, I would have continued to try to write project grants with the Natural History Museum, but whether I would have been successful is another thing," Dr Cook says. "To get a research grant, you usually have to have a strong track record of research in that area."

At the Natural History Museum she will be in close contact with leading figures across different disciplines, including her mentor, world mosquito expert Ralph Harbach. She is also looking forward to exploring the museum in her lunch hour.

Dr Cook is not fazed by the responsibilities of managing her own project. As a graduate student, she survived a change of supervisor mid-course and secured permission to convert a cupboard into a laboratory to meet her research requirements.

A main challenge of research is having the confidence to pick up a telephone and approach a potential collaborator. "I'm a 'glass is half full' kind of person. If you prove to be reliable, enthusiastic, and if you produce the results and stay in contact with them, things work out."

  • I graduated from Oxford University
  • My first job was project leader of an Earthwatch Europe study in the forests of Mexico
  • My main challenge is fitting everything I want to do into one lifetime. My priority is my academic career, but I also hope to continue to balance that with my professional dancing
  • What I hate most is missed opportunities or wasted time
  • In ten years I cannot be sure of anything other than that I will still be passionate about scientific research and the freedom to pursue interesting, worthwhile questions

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