Prof Christine Loscher on Covid-19 and the immune system

29 Sep 2021

Prof Christine Loscher. Image: DCU

DCU professor Christine Loscher discusses leading the university’s Covid-19 Research and Innovation Hub and what the pandemic has taught us.

Having completed her PhD in immunology in 2000, Prof Christine Loscher has been a major player in Ireland’s science and research field over the last two decades.

From food and nutrition to fishing for new molecules from the ocean, Loscher’s research has explored several areas at the forefront of immunology.

Now, her experience has brought her to an entirely new role. As well as being the associate dean for research in the Faculty of Science and Health at Dublin City University (DCU), Loscher also leads the university’s Covid-19 Research and Innovation (R&I) Hub.

Speaking to Siliconrepublic.com, she said it was weird to think that she did her PhD on the side effects of particular vaccines 20 years ago.

“When you’re doing your PhD, you think what you’re working on is the most important thing in the world. And you know, nobody ever really reads your PhD,” she said.

“But actually, I never thought that immunology would be as important as it is now. And while Covid-19 has been horrendous, there’s now a new appreciation amongst everybody, not just people who are in STEM, that actually your ability to mount a good immune response and have a good healthy immune system is actually really important.”

‘You don’t understand how well your immune system functions until you have to use it’
– PROF CHRISTINE LOSCHER

She said she hoped people will put more value into their immune system now and be open to how lifestyle choices can affect it.

“That’s the great thing about your immune system, is that you can influence it with food, with exercise, with sleep, and that’s something that people are beginning to understand. And it’s a great opportunity for us now in immunology, to be able to really push our science forward, and actually translate that science into what people do in their everyday lives.”

Misconceptions about immunity

Covid-19 brought with it a greater need for science communication but also came with a lot of misinformation. After all, who could forget when former US president Donald Trump suggested that injecting disinfectant might be a good remedy for Covid-19?

I asked Loscher about any misconceptions specifically around the area of immunology that she saw spring up since the pandemic began.

One misconception she felt a lot of people held onto was the idea that if someone was seemingly healthy and did not have an underlying health condition, that their immune system was fine and would be able to fight Covid-19. “We don’t really have a sense of how good our immune system is in general, from day to day.”

Essentially, just because a person doesn’t need glasses, it doesn’t mean they have 20/20 vision. Loscher said Covid-19 proved just how different everyone’s immune systems are.

“Four of us in the house got Covid and four of us had completely different symptoms. Four of us had completely different varying responses to how well we coped with it, how sick we got, and then we had a totally different response in terms of how did we recover,” she said.

“You don’t normally understand how well your immune system functions until you have to use it.”

The Covid-19 R&I Hub

When the pandemic first hit, there was a desire across the world to find out what people could do to help in this global emergency. Aside from the massive response from the pharma industry to create effective vaccines, many other scientists and researchers from a wide range of disciplines wanted to contribute to the cause.

Internally at DCU, Loscher said there was a discussion across all faculties about how these various problems could be addressed, which is how the Covid-19 R&I Hub came to be.

The hub was established to support multi-disciplinary projects focused exclusively on the challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The criteria were, can you identify a challenge that you can create a solution for, and implement that solution within a period of six months to actually impact on the current pandemic? We had almost 100 applications from across the university. And we were able to fund 16 of them,” she said.

The projects were across all disciplines, including ways to improve rapid testing for the virus, setting up a platform to screen for new therapeutics, and identifying and managing misinformation.

“We’re still working with the [DCU] Education Trust to try and fundraise from companies to fund additional work in this space,” she said.

“We would hope, though, that the way we put this together, which is really about response to crisis, that we would be able to get people together if there’s another crisis that we could address. So, it’s really about a platform for being able to address a crisis that happens, as opposed to only applied now to Covid-19.”

Personal challenges

Having established such a strong career, including a recent promotion to full professor of immunology, I wanted to know about the challenges Loscher faced along the way. Many of these, she said, were in the area of confidence and self-belief.

“Things I’ve learned over the years to help me cope with those is that every time you have a fail, you realise that you’ve learned something from it, and then it makes something else more successful,” she said.

‘If you think you’re in a situation because you’re a woman, take advantage of it’
– PROF CHRISTINE LOSCHER

“One of the biggest failures I had where I led out on a big strategic initiative for something that we didn’t get, I was absolutely gutted because it took a lot for me to stand up and lead it.

“Interestingly, I gained an awful lot of trust from people because of the way in which I led it that I know will be brought to fruition in different ways. It’s very hard to stick your hand up for something and then it fails. But I’ve stuck my hand up for other things and they’ve worked out and that gives you the confidence to do it again.”

Loscher said as a woman in STEM, she has also met a lot of resistance along the way and has been in a room knowing the only reason she was asked to be there was because she was a woman.

“I decided quite early on that I would actually use them as opportunities, rather than see them negatively. I think that’s really important,” she said.

“I think that the biggest thing that you need to do for yourself, and I’ve done for myself is, is to just take [your] ability at face value, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman. And if you think you’re in a situation because you’re a woman, then just take advantage of it.”

Another challenge that must not be overlooked for women is what happens outside of working hours, such as looking after children. This, she said, can be particularly noticeable when someone is asked to go on TV or radio with little notice, forcing many women who are often in charge of a lot of the family jobs, such as school pick-up, to say no to these opportunities.

“Sometimes those are the reasons why men are on things the whole time, because of the family responsibility,” she said. “I do think that makes it harder for us.”

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Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com