Edward Jenner saved millions of lives, not by finding a cure for a disease but by stopping people from catching it: he created the first vaccine. Now, thanks to Jenner, no one catches smallpox, a horrible, deadly disease. Today, vaccines are used to stop the spread of equally awful diseases, saving lives without us even knowing it.
Edward Jenner helped stop the spread of smallpox by creating the first vaccine. Dr Olivier Restif is a Royal Society funded scientist who works at the University of Cambridge, investigating how diseases spread through human and animal populations.
Can you briefly describe your research?
I am trying to understand how ecology affects the spread of infections. For example, if two animal species are competing with each other for access to food or habitat (like the red and grey squirrels in the UK), what happens if one species can transmit a disease-causing virus to the other? To answer this question, I create a theoretical model of the spread of disease epidemics on a computer, and I see which species (say, the red or the grey squirrel) wins the competition under different scenarios. Right now I am working on infections of bats: some of my colleagues are going to Africa, catching bats and taking blood samples to look for viruses. By comparing their findings with my simulations, we hope to understand how diseases like rabies spread in bat colonies and whether they can infect other animals and spread to humans.
Straw-coloured bats roosting in a tree in Ghana.
A close-up of one of the bats.
Scientists measure the size of the bats, and take blood samples to test for diseases.
What is one interesting thing you have discovered?
I am also looking at the role of evolution and natural selection in the development of immunity against diseases. For example, I have found that in many animal species, males and females have evolved different ways to defend themselves against infections, because of their different behaviours (depending on whether they live in groups or fight with each other for example). This could help understand better how diseases spread in different groups of animals and improve control strategies against epidemics.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
When I was a student, I read The Origin of Species, a book written 150 years ago by the British naturalist Charles Darwin, after his journey around the world. It illustrates perfectly the qualities of a good scientist: first you need to observe the world around you in much detail; then you must ask questions whenever you cannot understand the things you observed; and finally, if you are not happy with the answers that others may give you, you must find better ones by yourself.
What subjects did you study at school and what did you do your degree in?
I did all my studies in France, where I grew up. We don't have A levels in France, but a series of exams called baccalaureat. Although the main part was maths and science, I also had to take other subjects such as French, English, history and philosophy, and I studied a similar range of subjects for my university degree. Keeping an open mind and learning a bit about everything is a very healthy habit.
What do you love about your job?
The fact that I learn something new every day and that I can contribute to our understanding of how the world works. Scientific research is also a truly international community: in Cambridge I work with colleagues from all continents, and I often travel to meet with other scientists. Finding out how other people live and think in other countries is a very enriching experience.
What are your hobbies?
In many ways I consider my job as a hobby because it is a passion, but I like to do other things too. I love music and often go to concerts in Cambridge or in London. Like everyone I have bad days in the office and doing some kind of physical or manual activity is the best way to relax and forget about all my worries! So whenever the weather is nice I go running or cycling to enjoy the beautiful countryside. And if it rains I like cooking dinner for my friends.
If you could go back in time and meet Edward Jenner, what would you like to ask him?
It is remarkable that Jenner invented the first vaccine against smallpox at a time when hardly anything was known about diseases. The microbes that cause smallpox and other infections were only discovered almost a century later; and then it took another 50 years to understand how vaccines actually help our body to fight infections. If I could go back in time and meet Jenner, I would ask him what he thought of the idea that smallpox is caused by a microscopic particle called a virus and that his vaccine was actually made of a slightly different virus which, for mysterious reasons, does not cause a disease in people but protect them against smallpox.