Emma Hodcroft

Emma Hodcroft

Position: Senior Postdoctoral Researcher

Research focus: Phylogenetics and viral evolution

What do you love about viruses?
The fact that you can open up their genomes in a alignment viewer! I worked on bacteria for a while and not being able to just open up alignments and check them out drove me crazy. But also – their fast evolutionary rate, which keeps things interesting and makes a lot of my work possible!

Who is your favourite scientist and why?
Sir David Attenborough. He’s done so much for awareness of our world, nature, and climate change – and all with a voice that immediately drains away your stress and transports you into the magical natural world. I would love to meet him.

On what topic could you give a 30-minute presentation without any preparation?
Definitely SARS-CoV-2 at this point, and probably Enterovirus D68. Outside of science, I really enjoy logistics and air travel – I could probably give a very weird presentation on some random airport and air disaster facts. What is your favourite way to spend a day off?

What are you currently learning?
I’m keen to start integrating more immunological and structural data into phylogenetic work – I think tying evolution and selection pressure to the impact of mutations will lead to very neat new insights.

If you could create a new invention, what would it be?
A super-cheap, high-throughput, rugged sequencer with reagents that are also cheap and accessible. The fact that it’s so difficult for so many countries around the world to get a sequencer or reagents, or get one with a warrantee, or access servicing, or only at extortionate markups, really shocks me. Countries are really hindered in their ability to further their own research or understanding of the pathogens that matter to them without access to cheap and reliable sequencing. Plus, the rest of us are blind to what we might learn about these pathogens or a more complete understanding of the global distribution or circulation. It’s in everyone’s interest to work on creating more accessible and equitable sequencing and sequence sharing.

What is the coolest thing about your research?
I love the feeling of opening up a new phylogenetic tree, or one with new sequences added, after running the analysis, and not knowing what I might see. What’s grown from last time? What new mutations might have appeared? What older lineages do new samples attach to? What unexpected connections might we spot? I also really enjoying getting to help out with others’ research on a diverse array of pathogens. There’s so many different things to discover out there! Finally, I love that most of my work is accessible and openly available. Sharing my excitement about my research is one of the most rewarding things I do.

What do people think about you that isn’t true?
I think due to publicity during the pandemic, some people think I’m perhaps a bit big-headed – I’m really not! Being a precariously employed post-doc during the pandemic is a very effective anecdote to illusions of grandeur. If anything, I feel more pressure than ever to ensure my work is accurate, convey scientific communication clearly, and live up to expectations. I’m honoured both that I’ve been able to help during the pandemic, and that I’ve been able to provide good communication to so many people, but the responsibility that comes with this weighs really heavily, and I take it very seriously.

What was your most surprising scientific finding?
The discovery of the EU1 variant of SARS-CoV-2 in autumn 2020 – initially I thought this was the first more-transmissible variant. I have never worked so fast in my life. Even though it was not more transmissible, it taught us an invaluable lesson in the role of human behaviour for pandemic spread.

If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?
Virus evolution and phylogenetics – exactly what I do!

Is there anything else you would like to share with other EVBC members?
“All evolutionary biologists know that variation itself is nature’s only irreducible essence. Variation is the hard reality, not a set of imperfect measures for a central tendency. Means and medians are the abstractions.” – S J Gould