Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Nerds without borders!


Me in a lab starting the process of extracting NK cells from someone I had persuaded to give me their blood!

Me in a lab starting the process of extracting NK cells from the blood of some poor soul who I had accosted with a needle and an ethics form earlier that day.

This is the first in a series of blogs: each day this week, I will profile a scientist/researcher who works in the international development sector. And first up… it’s me!I started my career as a full-blown, lab-based, nerdy scientist. My PhD looked at how genetic variation in HIV affects which cells it can infect. I spent years of my life cutting up bits of tissue from people who had died while HIV-infected, extracting DNA from the cells and then figuring out what bits of HIV’s genetic code were associated with what cell types. After my PhD, I moved to working on immune response to Malaria. In this case, I worked on one particular cell – the sinisterly-named ‘Natural Killer Cells’ (NK cells for short). I looked at how different people’s NK cells responded to Malaria parasites. I became a real expert in this – I started being able to recognise people just by looking at a chart showing the distribution of proteins on the surface of their NK cells. I was briefly one of the world experts in the response of NK cells to pathogens. I even managed to sneak amusing (to nerds) sexual innuendos into journal articles on this topic.


This is a picture of one of my actual cells – not an NK cell but a Neutrophil in this case. l think it’s kind of cool to get the chance to see one of my own cells up-close and personal – and I also like the fact that it looks a bit like a baby elephant.

I really loved the challenge of scientific research. But I started to get a bit worried that I was not really doing anything to help people. I mean, I had gone into medical research because I thought it would be a way to improve the world. But as I continued to write grant applications making the case that NK cells might potentially play a role in responses to as-yet undiscovered vaccines, I started to feel increasingly frustrated with being so removed from helping actual people with actual problems.* This became particularly apparent when I got more and more into lecturing and mentoring students. I realised that I loved teaching and that being able to help someone – even if it was just to pass their immunology exams – was really important to me.

My career had always focussed on diseases of the developing world (before my PhD I had also done some work on tuberculosis so I had managed to dabble in all of the Big Three infectious diseases) and my work on malaria had also given me the chance to spend some time doing research in Africa. I started to feel more and more that rather than doing research to try to come up with answers which might potentially help people in the future, I wanted to support researchers in developing countries so that they would have the capacity to do the research and make use of the results themselves.

There has been some excellent blog-based advice for those who want to get into international development careers – see for example the series starting here from @rachelstrohm. But when I was an academic scientist who wanted to break into the development field, I felt there was very little specific guidance on potential career paths for me. I had some relevant skills – the ability to problem solve, an understanding of research, the ability to plan and implement projects – but I didn’t have the specific skills that were needed in the development field… and I didn’t know how to acquire them.

Luckily for me, around about the same time as I was thinking about moving fields, there seems to have been an increase in interest in the intersection between research and international development. I have been incredibly lucky to have been able to pursue a career in this ‘micro-genre’. I first got a job working on research capacity building at the Wellcome Trust. From there, I moved to a job working with the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology supporting a capacity building scheme for scientific advice in the Ugandan parliament. From there I moved to INASP to head up a programme on Evidence-Informed Policy Making. And from that I moved to my current job leading the Evidence into Action team at the UK Department for International Development.

Now that I am working in this field, I come across loads of nerdy researchers like me. Some are still doing research (on topics more directly-related to development than mine had been); others work for development research funders; provide scientific advice to decision makers; or work to build research capacity in developing countries.

So, I decided I would carry out interviews with a few of the nerdy science/research types who have ended up working in international development to find out what their backgrounds are and how they ended up working where they do now. Starting on Monday, I will feature a new friend, colleague or maybe even frolleagues each day this week.

You can sign up for email updates on the top right of this page if you would like to get an email with each new post. I hope you enjoy them- and do please let me know via the comments if you are a fellow Nerd Without Borders!

*This by the way is not a criticism of lab-based scientists – it is probably more a reflection of my own short attention span. In fact, I met my supervisor from my malaria research days the other day and was delighted to hear that some of the work I had started has now developed into a stream of research directly looking at the role of NK cells in vaccines – so it wasn’t so implausible after all!


Take a look at parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.


10 thoughts on “Nerds without borders!

  1. Pingback: Nerds without borders – Juliette Mutheu | kirstyevidence

  2. Dear Kirsty,
    I liked this post a lot, because it somehow reflects my carrier path as well. Unfortunately in my country there is not much recognition of this multidisciplinary moves. Development work, especially in the non-governmental sector, is also highly considered suspicious by some of our politicians. but I am struggling to help the vulnerable people (including drug users, women and children living with HIV) against all odds. Let’s hope for making earth a better place for all of us.
    BTW I liked the nerdy smile in the photo you shared 😉
    Best Regards
    from Iran

  3. Pingback: Nerds without borders – Nhan Tran | kirstyevidence

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    Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless handheld from Glo Mobile.

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  9. Pingback: Career Profile: Kirsty Newman | The Development Book Club

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