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Spotlight: Prof. Peter Barlow, Professor of Immunology & Infection at Edinburgh Napier University

Tell us a fun fact about yourself

I’ve spent a lot of time getting interviewed for television, print and radio media, either on my own work or commenting the work of others. I still get really nervous doing this, whether it’s a live television interview or a 30 second comment sent by email.

Also, I’m obsessed with long distance hiking and hope to one day complete the three North American long distance trails; the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.

Tell us about your career journey so far

I started with an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Science at Edinburgh Napier, which I did because I didn’t really know what I wanted to be in life. Once I got into the lab, I loved the experience of undertaking a research project and doing experiments that I had designed and executed by myself. That led to a PhD (conveniently also at Edinburgh Napier), where I studied inflammatory responses in the lungs following air pollution exposure. I then subsequently undertook a postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Edinburgh where I got interested in viral infections and this then led to a second Fellowship in the United States at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It was there that I was fortunate to begin working with pathogens such as influenza virus, both seasonal flu and highly pathogenic avian influenza.

In 2011 I returned to Edinburgh Napier as a Lecturer and have been there for around 9 years (although now I am a Professor). I work with a talented group of research scientists on projects that look at how the immune system responds to viral infection, with the hope that we can use this information to develop brand new treatments for viruses.

What was your favourite subject in school and why?

I love studying biology because I was fascinated with how cells and proteins in our bodies could all combine to make “life”. It’s of endless interest to me how our physiology has evolved to cope with all the stresses of our daily lives, including being challenged by harmful bacteria and viruses, and how we can constantly and efficiently defend ourselves against these attacks.

What subjects/qualifications are useful in your role?

I think that every subject I have ever studied has, in some way, contributed to the way in which I view my research. The science subjects contain the most obvious link to my work each day, but I enjoy the public engagement aspects of science which provide lots of opportunity to be a little more creative about how we view things.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

I enjoy travelling and experiencing different cultures, and I’ve been lucky enough that the responsibilities of my job mean that I have to travel to many different countries (including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, India USA, France and Spain). I’m really privileged to work with so many talented people around the world.

What is a normal day in your role like?

It’s safe for me to say there is no ‘normal’ day, as each day can be very different from the one before. Sometimes I will be in the lab, sometimes I’ll spend the day on my computer writing a grant application or paper, sometimes I will be teaching students, sometimes I’ll be on a funding panel or speaking at a conference or seminar series. Some days, I’ll even be speaking with school children or doing a television interview. Lots of variety means that I never get bored.

Suggest an activity that could be done at home that illustrates an aspect of your work?

I do a lot of work with viruses that are responsible for causing colds and flu. The CDC, where I used to work, has a fantastic range of resources on colds and flu, for kids of all ages. The “glitter” activity on page 22 is a fantastic way to illustrate how pathogens spread by touch.

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The UK-wide STEM Ambassador programme is managed by STEM Learning Limited, which operates the National STEM Learning Network, alongside other projects supporting STEM education. To find out more please go to the STEM Learning website