Catherine was always interested in the differences between living things, and growing up on a farm in Galway, Republic of Ireland, gave her lots to ask questions about. “My mother said, ‘You just didn’t stop!’” Catherine admits. “I was always outside; I was always watching things grow and curious about why things grew differently. It was about genetics, but I didn’t quite know that at the time. I used to be constantly knocking on my grandmother’s door – ‘Just one more question!’”
Both her mother and grandmother had pursued careers themselves, and Catherine credits the strong women she knew growing up with shaping her ambitions for her own life. “One thing that I would say influenced me a lot was: when I was growing up my mother decided to go back and do a degree at the age of 42.” Catherine remembers the example her mother set to her and her five siblings: “We watched my mother going back to college for four years in the evenings, so she’d finish work at 6pm then go to college till 10pm and then come home. When there are tough times and you’re striving towards things in your career, I reflect on seeing that growing up – the digging deep and being positive.”
Her father’s support was an important influence as well: “At that time it would’ve been the men mainly going out to work, so seeing my father accepting that it was against the gender norm and seeing that he was so proud of his wife being able to advance her career and earn her degree… from an early age I didn’t see that there should be a split between genders, that everybody should have equal opportunity.”
Catherine studied Medical Science at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, especially enjoying the module in Medical Microbiology. “I really liked that it was very hands-on: you could grow the organisms and look at their diversity on the culture plate and under the microscope. And it was always changing, they were always evolving.” That constant change appealed to Catherine; however much she studied her microscopic subjects, there would always be something new to discover.
“I almost stumbled into research,” Catherine says. Her degree was designed to provide the skills required to work in clinical diagnostics, for example in a hospital laboratory, but Catherine happened to be one of just two students in her year who were placed in a research lab for a 12-week project. At the time, she felt singled out: “How come I’m the one that gets put in a research lab?” And when she saw the overly long and complicated name of the gene that was to be the subject of her research, she didn’t feel any more confident. She remembers thinking, “How am I supposed to pronounce this, let alone study it?” But she soon discovered she enjoyed applying the research techniques she had learnt about. “That got me really engrossed in antibiotic resistance and research tools, and wanting to know more – it grabbed my curiosity.”
During a year of travelling, she saw a PhD advertised at the National University of Ireland Galway that combined everything she was interested in: “Healthcare-associated infections in residents in care homes – so that fit into my degree – and then it had the antibiotic resistance element which had grabbed my attention during the research project. To me it was the perfect project, and I’d been interested in helping the elderly – I really wanted to help to understand how infections were spreading in care homes and try to make a difference.”
After her PhD, she took the leap to leave Ireland, applying for a postdoctoral position at the University of Cambridge. “That was when I really got into genomics,” Catherine explains – the first time she had been able to sequence the full genetic code of the bacteria she was studying for herself. “They were using the tools that I dreamt about using but had limited access to in Ireland.” As her career progressed, she kept close ties with her previous PhD group in Ireland and helped set up a national sequencing service for antibiotic resistance.
Catherine was awarded a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2016 to investigate the source and transmission of antimicrobial-resistant pathogens. Using a One Health approach, she collected and sequenced samples from livestock, wastewater and hospital patients. This meant working with a wide variety of people – farmers, veterinarians, wastewater specialists, healthcare staff, scientists and patients. Catherine used the power of genomics to identify transmission routes and used this knowledge to demonstrate effective interventions to minimise the spread of infection.
During her postdoc, Catherine applied for a six-month position at the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Sweden. There, Catherine used whole-genome epidemiological data from across Europe to help with investigations into international outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant bacterial diseases. “I was talking to European partners, advising them on outbreaks and advising them on tools… I didn’t realise it at the time, but this expertise was a nice introduction to what was yet to come with the pandemic!”
She returned to the UK in January 2020, resuming her previous research as the COVID-19 pandemic began to hit the news. In March, like many other Europeans, Catherine was stuck at home during lockdown, continuing her work as best she could from her kitchen table. Then she got the phone call that catapulted her into the heart of the UK’s COVID-19 monitoring.
“I didn’t necessarily know at the beginning what I was getting myself in for!” Catherine laughs as she recalls the conversation. “It was literally like, ‘Are you in Cambridge? Can you help?’ And again it caught my curiosity because I didn’t know what was involved.” With her previous experience in genomics and epidemiology, Catherine was asked to join the team sequencing COVID-19 samples and tracking the evolution of the virus, and she became Director of Operations at the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK). “It wasn’t planned, but if you take the opportunity when it comes… It’s interesting how these things happen, how one opportunity leads to another and how the skills that you get are transferable in one way or another.”
Although she had managed small teams before, Catherine had never experienced such a major leadership role, and she was thrown right in at the deep end. “I had to just become a leader,” she says. Although she thinks that everyone has leadership qualities within them, it was a big responsibility for her to take on and learn on the job. “Looking back, it was a challenge that I really liked because I was learning every day. But I had to learn quick!”
Part of the challenge was in finding her own confidence. “Most people I work with are professors and are senior experts in their field. And then I’m a young female coming in to oversee the process and bring it all together. It was a personal challenge; it wasn’t as if anyone was unkind to me because I was young or female, but it’s about building the confidence to tell yourself that, ‘Yes! I can do this; I can do this as well as anybody else.’” She found the Talented Women’s Impact Programme, running at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, a big help. “They went through lots of interesting articles on women in leadership and empowerment, but also how to deal with difficult situations and different personalities. These are things that you may not think about until you have to, and it’s quite good to reflect.”
She also had to get to grips with the process of receiving samples from all over UK, sending them for sequencing and ensuring the data was available for analysis. “It required a lot of collaboration, speaking to many different people, putting the puzzle together, and wondering then how I could shape the future of that puzzle and improve it – strategically thinking about what needed to be done to help streamline the process.” Catherine stresses the importance of talking to people in her role and bringing the team together: “When people were tired or stressed, to be the positive one, and to remind them that we’re here to do something amazing. It just required a lot of resilience, patience and negotiation work. Everybody was tired, everybody was battling with different issues in their own lives, so I think being able to understand that and create that connection with people – it wasn’t about giving orders and waiting for the results, it was all about working together as a team.”
Catherine remembers proudly the moment her team really pulled together around Christmas 2020, when the spread of the more transmissible Kent variant of the virus made COG-UK’s work even more urgent. “We had to contact everybody in the network and say, ‘We need you more than ever,’ basically asking them to put their Christmases on hold. And it was the response of these people that was truly awe-inspiring – many were more than happy to make that sacrifice, to dig that little bit deeper and were actively updating the team with progress throughout the holidays. These people were pulling together voluntarily as academics for the greater good, to help with the public health response. It showed how much the network shined: people willing to give up their Christmas. I was quite in awe of everybody and it made me feel really happy to be part of it. That was one of my breakthrough moments.”
COG-UK now having sequenced more than 1.3 million SARS-CoV-2 genomes as of November 2021, Catherine reflects on the positives of working in public health. “Normally you do a piece of research and you wait a very long time for it to be published – there’s a lot of waiting and reviews – whereas here everything has to be responsive because it’s happening every day, it’s affecting everybody’s lives, right now. It can be quite stressful, but you can also see the rewards of being part of the research that’s shaping what the country is doing.”
She does miss aspects of her independent research, though. She speaks with enthusiasm of the moments she was awaiting the first data from a long experiment or explaining her results to the care home residents she worked with. “There’s just times when you’re like, ‘Wow, this was worth the hard work and the long nights.’” She also misses being able to dig into the data herself, and especially working with patients. “I miss the interaction with the people that would be part of the research. As you lead a group you get less involved with the day-to-day. It’s important to remind yourself: you may not physically know the person this sample came from but it’s still making a difference to them.”
To keep up to date with epidemiological skills, Catherine has been completing a distance-learning Master’s degree in Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine during the evenings. “It’s a difficult balance but it keeps me up to date with epidemiological methods, while still contributing to the COVID-19 public health response.” With a full-time job and her studies taking up most of her time, Catherine makes sure to schedule in exercise. “It’s so important for mental health,” she says. As well as running, Catherine loves to go for a swim in the nearby rivers and lakes. “I do like a winter swim! The hardcore western Irish person coming through… I used to play a lot of sports in the winter, in hail, rain or snow. I did winter swimming when I was in Sweden – that was very, very cold but there’s a difference in Sweden in that they have a sauna, whereas in the UK you basically have a cup of tea. I prefer the sauna but I’ll take what I’ve got!”
Catherine has a few words of advice for those earlier in their careers. “Take opportunities as they come. We need to not be afraid of uncertainty.” She remembers the growth she has shown since she took on her role as Director of Operations: “I came in here in March 2020 and was nervous chairing a meeting; now I chair multiple meetings every week and I don’t think about it – it just flows, and you have a structure. I think it’s been quite exciting to see that journey and go, ‘Yes, that was scary, but now it’s not.’ And then seeing what is scary next and going, ‘How am I going to make that less scary?’”
She also emphasises the importance of a good mentor. “My first mentor was my PhD supervisor; he knew me from when I was in my degree and really understood the young me and why I went into research.” Catherine also mentions the mentorship of Prof. Sharon Peacock, her postdoctoral supervisor at the University of Cambridge, as instrumental to her success as a leader. “I’ve been quite lucky; I’ve had mentors along the way who’ve really nurtured me and provided advice.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Catherine says, “Just do a job that you love. Something that grasps you, that will keep you interested, that keeps you in love with your job. That will show to everybody around you, but it will also keep you a lot happier.” For Catherine, that means following her fascination with improving healthcare using genomics and cutting edge science, and making sure that she keeps on making a difference. “I think as long as I feel that I’m contributing to public health and people’s health and wellbeing in general, then I’ll be happy.”
December 9, 2021
Written by Bryony Stubbs
Photo Credits: AI Davenport