Holly Kerr on identifying host factors and pathways affecting COVID-19

Holly talks about her PhD research screening the Human Druggable Genome for factors affecting SARS-CoV-2 infection, wild swimming, and how working in a coronavirus testing lab during the pandemic has guided her career direction.

Holly Kerr is currently a PhD student in the research group of Dr Christine Tait-Burkard at the Roslin Institute.

Please tell us about your research project and how your work involves genomics or makes use of genomic technologies

My research aims to understand the human proteins that are involved during a SARS-CoV-2 infection in the cell. Otherwise known as host factors, these human proteins can be helping the virus during infection (pro-viral) or trying to fight it (anti-viral). Using high throughput genomic screening technology, the Tait-Burkard lab screened the Human Druggable Genome using gene silencing via siRNA knockdown to identify host factors and host pathways in an in vitro SARS-CoV-2 screen. I’ve been analysing and validating the results of this screen as part of my PhD, identifying interesting genes that, when silenced, result in either more or less virus production compared to controls i.e. are helping or hindering the virus during its replication. The human druggable genome is a great lens through which to study these interactions, since validated host factors from this screen may lead us to a druggable-candidate and a new anti-viral strategy to treat COVID-19. By following up results with other human coronaviruses, we may also find targets for broader spectrum anti-viral treatments to better prepare us for future pandemics.

Holly Kerr on a boat

Please summarise your previous work and career so far.

I completed my undergraduate in Genetics at University of Glasgow in 2020 (what a year!) and worked for 5 months as a Laboratory Scientist then Supervisor at the COVID-19 testing Lighthouse Laboratory. I started my PhD at the University of Edinburgh late 2020, joining the Wellcome Trust’s first cohort of One Health Models of Disease: Science, Ethics and Society students. Since then, I’ve been researching the virus that causes COVID-19, using cross-disciplinary collaboration with cancer scientists to test existing cancer drugs as host directed anti-viral strategies and working internationally in a Public Private Partnership consortium to understand host responses & find anti-viral therapies to treat SARS-CoV-2, as well as prepare for future pandemics. I’ve presented my work at various national and international conferences and meetings and had the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting and diverse people. I try to advocate for better representation, equality, diversity and inclusion in science and sit on the EDI and Mental Health & Wellbeing Committees to represent the PGR community at my campus, Easter Bush. I’m otherwise (and maybe more well-) known as a Dunking Dolly at Easter Bush, as I help set up & lead a wild swimming group for students and staff at Easter Bush, cold dipping in local reservoirs and the sea all year round!

Holly Kerr wild swimming

What inspired you to follow your career path?

My Mum is a nurse and has always taught me the importance of health and caring for others. She is my biggest inspiration and growing up, I aspired to a similarly satisfying career aligned in some way with healthcare. However, with a very queasy stomach and a growing curiosity in cell biology at school, I decided to swerve from scrubs and hit the books to study biological sciences at university. I completed my degree, BSc Genetics, at the University of Glasgow and discovered throughout a love and ease with the practical laboratory side, particularly during my research honours project.

As a first gen student in Higher Education, I was not really familiar with the academic career trajectory and was inspired to apply for PhD by an amazing Genetics lecturer who had a lot of faith in me. I couldn’t believe that you could get trained and paid to follow your nose planning, doing, presenting and learning about others’ research! Coming straight from my undergrad, I decided to do a doctoral training programme with integrated learning where I’d be supported in that transition to a full-blown PhD research project. My PhD started at the very beginning of the pandemic, 2020, which really inspired my research interests of pandemic preparedness and one health that I hope to continue fostering post-PhD.

Holly Kerr by a window

If you could have tea with anyone (alive or dead), who would it be? What would you talk about?

I’d love my favourite author, comedian and singer in the one room please – Ali Smith, Billy Connely and Stevie Nicks. I think we’d put the world to rights!

What is the most unusual thing you have done during your career?

Working at the coronavirus testing lab at the beginning of the pandemic felt a bit surreal. It felt really unusual to be sharing a job title, roles & responsibilities with principal investigators with decades of experience. I really enjoyed the fact that a sometimes-perpetuated hierarchy in academia was squashed and instead replaced with a real team-work connection over a common goal – to process the mountains of samples that were coming through the door and get people’s test results back to them accurately and quickly.

Do you have any advice for people wanting to pursue a research career?

Research can be such an interesting, fun, creative career but it can also be stressful with many pressures. I hope some of these pressures are easing and a healthier, more compassionate approach to academic work-life balance is being fostered.

My biggest piece of advice is to build and nurture a support system for you for when things do get stressful. Lean on your friends, be there for others and always be kind. Keep up your hobbies and all the other things that make you who you are, outside of your research.

Holly Kerr

What do you like best about your job? What do you like the least?

The best bit about being a PhD student is the variety of every day. I like least the massive looming deadline of a thesis!

How do you spend your time outside of research? Is there anything else you would like to tell us about?

Going for a dog walk with my partner and our cocker spaniel, Jura is my favourite thing to do. We love trips up to the north of Scotland, particularly along the northwest coastline. Hosting friends for dinner, running, reading and swimming all keep me busy outside of research too.