Name: Dr Felicity Fitzgerald


Institution:  Institute of Child Health, University College London


Connection to the Academy: Spring Meeting 2016 participant and competition winner


In this Q&A, Dr Felicity Fitzgerald, a Clinical Research Training Fellow at the Institute of Child Health at University College London, tells us about her research, working with children in Sierra Leone and science communication. 

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into medical research?

I studied medicine at Trinity College, Cambridge and UCL. I always knew I wanted to do paediatrics (my granny was one of the first female consultant paediatricians in the UK!) and during medical school it became clear that I loved travelling and that I was fascinated by infectious diseases.

I spent my university holidays working in hospitals and orphanages in China, Cuba, Romania, South Africa and Malawi: I learnt a lot and tried hard not to get in the way. During my foundation years, I undertook a distance learning Master's in Infectious Diseases from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). My Master's project was studying vertical transmission of HIV in a township in Cape Town which enabled me to win an NIHR Academic Clinical Fellowship with Professor Nigel Klein at the UCL Institute of Child Health. This grew into an Medical Research Council funded PhD investigating microbial translocation in children with HIV in Uganda.


Your poster about the work you did with children with Ebola in Sierra Leone won the The Lord Leonard and Lady Estelle Wolfson Prize at the Spring Meeting in 2016. Could you tell us a bit about the research you were conducting then and today?

When the West African Ebola outbreak occurred I volunteered to work clinically in Ebola Holding Units in Freetown initially for 6 weeks…7 months later (!!) I came back, after having set up one of the largest and most comprehensive cohorts of children with suspected Ebola in Sierra Leone (following up both those who tested positive and negative). We have data on over 1000 children and are in the process of writing up our findings. 

It was a very different experience of research to my laboratory based PhD. Very basic, gritty epidemiology. The key part was visiting 13 different units around the Western Area of Sierra Leone to try to gather data at the sites themselves, as only basic demographic details were reported centrally. It tended to be very chaotic- as most outbreaks are- but in particular given how fragile and understaffed Sierra Leone health systems are. I am completely in awe of the courage, persistence and sheer hard work of the Sierra Leone clinicians and cleaners working in the individual units, often in the face of violent family opposition and delayed or absent pay cheques. It was probably the most humbling experience of my life. 


Did you enjoy taking part in the Spring Meeting? How was your experience of the day?

I had a great time- not just because I was lucky enough to win a prize! We can get very siloed in research; paediatric infectious diseases is pretty niche and it is rare to have the chance to meet my peers (and seniors) in other fields. It was very inspiring hearing about the wonderful work other medical researchers are doing up and down the country, and also an opportunity to think about future collaborations and discuss new ideas. 

You just won another prize for presenting your research, could you tell us about this new work?

Yes, I just won the 2016 Dr Michael Blacow memorial prize for a plenary presentation I gave at this year's Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health annual conference in Liverpool. The poster I presented at the Academy's Spring Meeting described 309 children in Sierra Leone who tested positive for Ebola, while the presentation I gave in Liverpool compared these 309 children with 697 children who were admitted with suspect Ebola but tested negative after 2-3 days in an Ebola Holding Unit waiting for their test results. We are trying to see if we can build something more specific than the current paediatric definition, which is the criteria by which we determine whether a person's illness can be classed as a "suspect case" in an outbreak. Currently, it this is extremely broad. This could hopefully limit the number of children admitted unnecessarily to high risk "Red Zones". Also, we are looking at the outcomes for the children who tested negative, in particular trying to estimate the risk of catching Ebola in a hospital during admission to an Ebola Holding Unit.

I attended the Academy's Careers Development day prior to the Spring Meeting where we had sessions on presentation skills and networking. I am convinced that some of the advice we were given during the presentation skills session contributed directly to me winning the prize! It was a hugely useful session and I have used various tips given, not only to scientific audiences but also in smaller settings and to school children as well. I would whole heartedly recommend the Careers Development day to other junior researchers. 

Did the training you received as a participant to the Spring Meeting and the experience of being interviewed by a professional broadcaster for a podcast help you improving your science communication skills?

I really enjoyed the experience, it was a wonderful opportunity for me to talk about a subject I love and also to get feedback on my presentation and communication skills (I need to talk more slowly!) To be interviewed by a professional broadcaster is a rare opportunity and I feel very lucky to have had the experience.


You have also written for the Telegraph in the past, about your work in Sierra Leone. Any tips you would can pass on to others about communicating science to a non-academic audience?.

I really enjoy writing, and in general think I'm much better at sounding colloquial than I am at sounding formal and scientific (which has its downsides- particularly in front of grand scientific audiences...). Medical researchers tend to be very passionate about their work, and I think the moment that enthusiasm and absorption is allowed to shine through, it makes for very engrossing reading. If your work is fascinating to you, it will be to other people too!

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