Still Moving Media, courtesy of Cheltenham Festivals

Netherlands-based doctoral researcher Alex Cloherty was crowned champion at the FameLab International 2021 Online Final.

Alex, a 27-year-old PhD student from the Amsterdam UMC, beat off strong competition from 22 researchers in the semi-final heats and final to secure the top spot in FameLab International 2021 with her talk on how our immune system fights viruses like Dengue, HIV and SARS.

Ka Man Parkinson from the British Council Cultural Engagement marketing team caught up with Alex after her success at FameLab to hear more about her experience, her research, and what's next for her.

Congratulations on being crowned FameLab International 2021 Global Champion! How would you describe your FameLab experience - and how do you feel about going on to take the competition’s top spot? 

FameLab has been an incredible way to connect with smart, kind, motivated people who are passionate about what they do. It sounds cheesy, but the best part has been the connections that FameLab has fostered.

As for going on to the top spot – I am still surprised, but absolutely delighted. I want to build a career in education and science communication, and I hope that being the judges' top pick will help me with that goal!

"For me, the best part about science communication is the people. I love seeing or hearing about the 'Aha!' moments when a complicated concept suddenly makes sense. 

FameLab has given me new skills to help people get to those 'Aha!' moments – I learned new ways to break down complicated topics both from the masterclasses and from the other participants. And it helped me get used to being on camera; I usually hid behind my blog in the past!"

Alex Cloherty, FameLab International 2021 Global Champion 

This year due to the pandemic, the FameLab Netherlands and FameLab International competitions were delivered in an online format. Were you able to successfully connect and click with FameLab trainers, fellow participants etc via video conversations? 

FameLab online was different than how I imagine it would have been in-person, but I think the organisers did a great job of making it a fun experience.

I was especially impressed with the production of the Semi-Finals and Finals. I would love it if we could meet up all together in person, though – perhaps at a future science festival!

In the Semi-Final and International Final, you used your love of film and TV to craft interesting analogies from the movie Alien and the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit to explain SARS-CoV-2 infection and immunity. How did you come up with these ideas and use these to develop your talk?

I’m always on the lookout for helpful analogies to explain science, and I use them all the time on my blog, Microbial Mondays.

For the Alien analogy, I actually watched the movie just before I needed to explain the replication cycle of Dengue virus at a lab meeting. 

While watching the film, I had the idea to use an image of the gut-erupter/chest-burster alien emerging from Officer Kane in my PowerPoint to make the 'bursting' action of Dengue virus memorable. 

As for the chess analogy, I was totally hooked on the suspense and story around chess while watching The Queen’s Gambit. It struck me how it’s an ancient game of combat – kind of like that between the immune system and infectious agents! 

I try to use analogies that are personal or at least accessible for everybody, and since many people have at least seen a game of chess on Netflix, if not played it themselves, it seemed a perfect way to help people visualise complex biology.

You say that the ultimate goal of your research is to find new and more accessible ways to treat the viruses we study – could you briefly explain what this might involve?

I’m so glad you asked! At the Autophagy-directed Immunity group, one of our focuses is on so-called 'host-directed' therapies. 

Basically, if 'direct-acting antivirals', like Tamiflu for instance, can be considered sharp-shooters that directly destroy an invading virus, host-directed therapies can be considered booby traps in your cells that can boost your immune system’s defensive actions. 

A big bonus of using host-directed therapies is that they typically don’t become less effective as a virus mutates, and are often effective across whole families of viruses rather than one specific variant – meaning that these therapies have a lot of potential in the field of rapidly emerging infectious diseases - like SARS-CoV-2 and its new variants of concern like Omicron. 

Then, to make the drugs that we find more accessible, we often make big screens of drugs (in human tissues like skin and gut, like I spoke about in the FameLab Final) that have already been used for other conditions – like cancer, transplantation, or epilepsy – to see if we can repurpose them as antivirals, which will hopefully reduce the cost of getting them out in the world to treat people. 

You represented the Netherlands in FameLab International. What brought you from your home country of Canada to the Netherlands? Do you plan to stay in Europe after completing your PhD?

I traveled to the Netherlands for an exchange semester during my Bachelor's degree at the University of British Columbia back in 2015, after a close friend and mentor at UBC convinced me that I’d like it here – and she could not have been more right! 

As well as science, I love biking, history, art, and traveling by train, and the Netherlands is a great place to enjoy all of those things. It’s also a bonus that compared to Canada, the country is small, so by my standards there are many top scientific institutes in very close proximity. 

I hope to stay in the Netherlands, or at least Europe. It’s become my home, although I do still have to improve my Dutch, to be honest.

What’s next for you? 

Well…learning Dutch, for one! 

I have about a year left in my PhD, and while I complete my thesis I will continue working on Microbial Mondays - both as a blog and on YouTube. 

Afterwards, I aim for a career in education and science communication.

Alex was the Global Champion of the 15th and final FameLab International competition delivered in partnership by FameLab owners Cheltenham Festivals together with the British Council. 

Read Alex's blog Microbial Mondays and follow her on Twitter at @alexgoesviral