Research Week: Dr Anna Roca talks about her work as an epidemiologist

Infectious diseases epidemiologist, Dr Anna Roca, talks about what led her to work on one of the biggest challenges in global health –  pneumococcal diseases. These include meningitis, pneumonia and sepsis. 

Anna’s work at MRC Unit,  The Gambia means that her family – husband (Joan) and two daughters(Aina 10 and Julia 7) – have spent more than a decade living in Africa.

Dr Anna Roca, Theme Coordinator Disease Control & Elimination)

Dr Anna Roca, Theme Coordinator Disease Control & Elimination

Q&A with Anna:

What attracted you or influenced you becoming a researcher?

While at the University, I saw a documentary on TV about the effects on malaria in children and the advances of the malaria vaccine, which at that time were very limited. I immediately decided I wanted to become a researcher working in the tropics and on vaccines. I did not know yet on what area I wanted to focus but I knew that living in Africa would be part of my life.

 

What did you study at school, and beyond, that helped you to move in this direction?

Since I was a child, I wanted to be a medical doctor. During my A levels, as a rebel teenager, I decided that studying medicine was too long and I wasn’t sure anymore if that is what I wanted. I was a bit confused and my main interest then was basketball. I decided to study something in the area of science, but not medicine. I could have chosen anything from math or physics to biology or pharmacy. But I chose chemistry. I did not enjoy it a bit! It took me a long time to finalise my degree and, without my mother pushing, I would have given up. I went on to specialise in Biochemistry, which I preferred.

After some experience in the lab and trips to Africa as a research assistant, I got a fellowship to conduct my PhD as a molecular epidemiologist. During that period and thanks to the influence of two internationally recognised scientists (one of them is still my mentor), I realised that my passion was to become an Epidemiologist.

Since then, my work has involved designing projects to answer research questions, implementing projects in the field, collecting data, generating laboratory results and participating in the statistical analysis to interpret results. I am a part of a multi-disciplinary team. Epidemiologists get involved in a wide range of activities from the field to the computer. I enjoy this diversity.

If you have a  typical day, how do you spend it?

There is no typical day in my work except for several daily meetings. It sometimes depends on the phase of a project. There are days when I spend hours and hours reading and writing proposals. When a new project gets funded, I spend my days selecting staff and training the team. After that, we do fieldwork which sometimes is in remote villages and sometimes in health facilities. The fieldwork can be physically tiring but very rewarding and requires a lot of teamwork for a large project to be successful.

My computer is always with me, whether it’s to write (proposals and manuscripts), to do statistical analysis or to access information on other studies conducted in other regions in the world. Presentation of results and participating in international meetings is also part of my work.

What do you find more interesting about your work?

The most exciting moment in my scientific life is when, after many years of work, my colleagues and I are able to finalise the statistical analysis. This is when we find out if the intervention that we’ve have been testing has an impact on health.

What is your proudest achievement to date?

I am proud of a clinical trial that we have recently finalised where the results are very promising. The objective of the trial was to decrease maternal and neonatal infections in The Gambia. I am also proud of the mentorship I give to some junior scientists.

What plans do you have next for your research?

My immediate plan is to attract funds in order to validate the trial study I am working on in a larger trial to be conducted in more than one country.

What are your top tips for young people considering STEM research?

I would just say that as an adult, you spend a significant part of your life working, so doing a job that you love is very important. Being a scientist is very satisfying, however, it’s not always easy. In science, failure is a necessary step for success. I say “put yourself in the shadow of a good tree!” which means it’s important to work with the best scientists!

 

The article was first published by the Association for Science Education  on March 4  2016