FROM RESEARCH TO REMARKABLE LEADERSHIP:
Medical Microbiologist Alumna Vanessa Allen (Winter 2015)
How are test protocols for infectious diseases developed? When should these tests be ordered and how are they interpreted? What happens to patient samples, and how does Public Health Ontario track and prevent future outbreaks? These are all important questions that Professor Vanessa Allen deals with on a daily basis.
Allen graduated from LMP’s Medical Microbiology program in 2008 and joined LMP as a faculty member in 2010. Since then she has become a formidable clinician, researcher and leader, and in 2014 she became Chief, Medical Microbiology at Public Health Ontario.
Allen became interested in infectious diseases and microbiology in 2003, when she was working as an internal medicine specialist during the SARS outbreak in Toronto. Influenced by Professor Andrew Simor, Allen decided to change her career path.
“Originally, I was thinking about going into respirology, but with the SARS outbreak, I thought that there were some interesting issues surrounding emerging pathogens,” says Allen. “Infectious diseases and microbiology fit my personality and interests in translating discoveries from the bench to the global level.”
There is never a dull day for Allen. She’s responsible for part of the lab that tests for bacterial sexually transmitted infections and food-borne illnesses. She also oversees the medical and scientific functions of the lab, and she plays a key support role to the lab’s portfolios including virology, HIV and hepatitis, tuberculosis, streptococci, antimicrobial resistance and pathogen discovery.
At the same time, research is one of Allen’s primary interests, leading to a major publication on drug-resistant gonorrhea in 2013. Her drive for research was inspired by her close work with Professor Donald Low. “Part of Don’s legacy is to see how we can develop science to be at the forefront of detection and response to infectious diseases and prepare for future outbreaks. I’m lucky to have the chance to push his ideas forward and to be one of many to build on his legacy.”
Allen remains passionate about medical microbiology, and thinks the way we diagnose diseases will completely change in the future. For example, Allen works with Professor Samir Patel who is leading a pathogen discovery project. By taking a sample of a patient’s cerebrospinal fluid, he plans to amplify its DNA and RNA to identify specific pathogens.
“Using genomics and metagenomics, clinicians won’t have to pre-order tests. They’ll find out what’s wrong with the patient. These tests can either pick up pathogens that you didn’t think to order tests for, or it can pick up new and emerging pathogens.”
Reflecting on her broad range of interests, Allen looks forward to future collaborations with clinicians and scientists. “It’s really exciting to work with clinicians and public health workers and the focus in upcoming years is to further strengthen those links. Our move to the MaRS building will help us realize that goal.”
When asked for advice for medical students interested in pursuing medical microbiology, Allen says, “It’s an amazing field, and it’s perfect if you’re interested in being challenged by new things every day.”