profile: dr viki male

Find out what inspired Viki to become a scientist and how her dedication to research is driving us closer to cracking the code on preterm birth.

Viki has always been interested in science. She studied at the University of Cambridge where she specialised in Immunology and Virology. Viki gained her PhD in pathology at Cambridge and went on to become a Research Associate at Imperial College London and King’s College London. While at University College London she was awarded the Wellcome Trust’s Sir Henry Dale Fellowship.  

Today Viki is a Borne funded Lecturer in Reproductive Immunology at Imperial College London. Her early research focused on how the immune cells in the uterus develop and gain the ability to recognise the placenta during the first weeks of pregnancy. Viki now leads a research group at Imperial College working with Borne funded reseachers to map the immune system in the uterus at the end of pregnancy. This work will contribute to Borne’s Uterine Mapping Project (BUMP), a global initiative bringing together different scientific specialisations to advance our understanding of normal and dysfunctional labour and identify new interventions to delay or prevent preterm labour. 

Viki also lectures in a variety of courses on reproductive immunology. More recently Viki has taken on additional research and teaching on the immune response to the Covid-19 infection. She has also used her platform to share her research on the safety of the Covid-19 vaccine for pregnant women, appearing in, Nature Magazine, BBC Womens Hour, The Guardian and the British Society for Immunology.  

“Can you tell us a bit about your path to becoming a scientist?”

When I was little, I used to get up early on Saturday mornings and watch TV. There was a programme which explained how the body worked by representing all the different cells as characters. Bacteria and viruses were the main “baddies” and the immune cells were the heroes. I know a lot of biologists of my age first got interested in the human body from this cartoon – it launched a lot of scientific careers!

That’s how it started, but I was also encouraged a lot by my dad. He’s a professional scientist, but he also has a real knack for doing science with whatever comes to hand. One time, we discovered that the leaves from a pot plant of my mum’s could be used to make quite a good indicator. We took a lot of leaves; the plant didn’t do well and my mum was unimpressed! Still, I guess it sparked something in me because I always thought I would feel at home working in a lab, and it turns out that I do.

“Where did the interest in researching the immunology of pregnancy stem from?”

When I went to Cambridge to do my undergraduate degree, I was very interested in viruses, and that led me into an interest in a kind of immune cell called an “NK cell”, which is specialised to recognise and kill virally infected cells. But at the same time, I was studying pregnancy. I had an inspirational supervisor for that course who knew I was studying immunology and set me the essay “Why is the placenta not rejected like an organ transplant?” I found it again recently, and it was almost completely wrong, but researching the topic led me to find out how the immune cells I loved so much – NK cells – were also important for the implantation of the placenta. And it turned out one of the people who had discovered this was working in Cambridge, and I ended up doing my PhD in her lab.

“Viki sees the science from a very clever perspective, which presents many opportunities where you are learning something new.  My development as a researcher has greatly benefited from working with her in the years preceding my training, and even until now as one of her trainees.”

– Antonia Cuff, Research Assistant, Imperial College London

“Why might studying immune cells in pregnancy help us to prevent preterm birth?”

I’m interested in the immune cells in the lining of the uterus, and there are two reasons that these might be involved in preterm birth. Early in pregnancy, NK cells help the placenta to implant, but if this process goes wrong, we see people getting pre-eclampsia and/or the baby not growing properly. In either of these cases, doctors might need to deliver the baby early, to give both you and the baby the best chance of living. I’m interested in boosting the function of these cells, to avoid this situation. Later in pregnancy, we have some evidence that another kind of immune cell in the uterus, called a macrophage, might be involved in initiating labour. If these cells are activated inappropriately, we might see people going into labour earlier than they ought to.

“Our funding has allowed you to lead research projects with students aiming to become fully qualified researchers; is this an important element in what you are aiming to achieve?”

Each of my students will answer a very specific question, which will help build up the bigger picture of how immune cells in the lining of the uterus are important for pregnancy – but that’s only half of the story! The training each one receives will allow them to continue pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge in this area after they have left my lab, whether that’s at the bench or the bedside.

Find out more about Viki’s work through our blog series or follow her on Twitter @VikiLovesFACS for updates about her work.

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