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‘Daunting’ Transition to Bench Work Eased by Boot Camp

Five Questions with Anne Piantadosi on finding community, work/life balance.

After several years immersed in clinical training as a physician-scientist, Anne Piantadosi, MD, PhD, needed a brain reset before diving into bench research. The “daunting” transition, as she termed it, was a little less so thanks to the Models of Disease boot camp, an intensive course designed as a kind of affinity space for early-career translational scientists.

Piantadosi went on to start up her own lab at Emory University in 2019 focused on the genomic patterns of emerging viruses. A few months later, COVID hit. She didn’t expect to be studying SARS-CoV-2, but the need and opportunity were there, and her lab blossomed rapidly. Today, her research continues to support COVID surveillance studies and genomic tracking of persistent infection while also investigating emerging tick-borne illnesses and mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, as she originally intended.

We caught up with her from her lab in Atlanta.

You attended the Models of Disease boot camp nine years ago. What was going on for you at that point in your career?

It was a pretty memorable point in my career, as I was finishing an extended period of clinical training. I had completed the MD/PhD graduate program at the University of Washington, followed by an internal medicine residency and postdoctoral fellowship in infectious disease, both at Massachusetts General Hospital. I had been out of the lab and away from research that whole time, so this was a transition back.

I had already joined a lab and started some research projects. It was the first time that I was turning on that part of my brain again and trying to do that type of work after a long time in clinical training. I really remember that transition as daunting.

“It was the first time that I was turning on that part of my brain again and trying to do that type of work after a long time in clinical training. I really remember that transition as daunting.”

What attracted you to the boot camp at that time?

I had talked to a few people who had been through a similar transition and had warned me about some of the challenges. Some had attended Models of Disease boot camp. I remember being excited to learn that there was this mechanism to consciously think about this transition and help connect people who were going through it and come up with strategies to support it. It helped us get up to speed on what was going on in the world scientifically and talk about our own careers and projects with others on a similar track.

I was coming back to science after a long time in clinical training. Much had changed in the field. I remember a lecture devoted to CRISPR, which was a pretty new technology at the time and considered a hot topic in science. For those of us who hadn’t been immersed in the scientific realm, it was something we needed to learn about.

I give a lot of credit to this course. A physician-scientist’s training pathway is long and has many challenges. This is an amazing resource that people need as they go through these training programs, yet many are not aware of it.

So here you are nearly a decade later studying the genomics of emerging viruses as head of your own lab with a dozen plus scientists. What is the primary focus of your research right now?

I study virus evolution, with a focus on emerging viruses. My lab is interested in how viruses evolve both at the population level and within individual patients. Our goal is to identify and understand emerging viruses to, hopefully, help us better prepare for another pandemic. I’m hesitant to say that we’re going to avoid another pandemic – that’s the goal of course, but I think we can at least be better prepared.

I started my lab at Emory University in 2019 with a focus on how vector-borne viruses are evolving. Dengue virus is an example of one that is transmitted by mosquitoes; others are tick-borne viruses that are a bit more obscure.

When COVID hit, everything changed. I had not previously been working on coronaviruses or even respiratory viruses. But the public health need was so high and there were so many opportunities to get involved that it was pretty easy to decide to focus on COVID. As a physician-scientist, I already collaborated with the hospital and clinical labs, so we set up studies to collect samples directly from people with COVID and study the virus’s genome, diversity, and evolution. The lab grew much more quickly than I expected to meet those needs.

“This is an amazing resource that people need as they go through these training programs, yet many are not aware of it.”

We’ve since standardized this work and continue to collect samples to sequence the evolving COVID genomes. These are made available in public repositories to support ongoing global COVID surveillance efforts that track how the virus is changing.

I am particularly interested in persistent COVID infection. This happens primarily in immunocompromised people, whose infection may last not just a couple of days or a week, but months or years. When the virus is in a person for that long, it can develop properties that worry us at the population level. It can become more resistant to antibodies or other treatment. If those variants were to spread at a population level, that could be an even bigger threat to public health.

Does that keep you up at night?

I don’t think it literally keeps me up at night, but I will say to be in this field through the COVID pandemic was an interesting experience. Nobody seemed to care about viruses beforehand, and then everyone cared about it a lot. It was really interesting to see the resources that went into research in COVID prevention and treatment, and it was really cool to see the level of public interest and engagement.

What metaphorically keeps me up at night right now is that people have stopped caring. There’s almost a backlash that people don’t want to think about pandemics anymore. That’s the thing that really does worry me.

We’re making amazing advances in science, but you have to have societal buy-in to care about them, to really make them worthwhile. I worry that the buy-in is declining.

I have a 13-year-old and an almost 10-year-old. When COVID started, there was a lot of concern around what effect it would have on kids. We were all relieved that kids were relatively spared from the worst consequences. But what if the next virus is worse for kids? That’s a really scary thought.

As a woman in science running your own lab who is also mom to a preteen and teenager, how do you find work/life balance?

I’m glad you brought that up because I definitely think it’s important to focus on. At the Models of Disease boot camp we spent a great deal of time talking about work/life balance. While I was in transitional junior faculty positions at HMS in the years after, Thomas Michel [course director] invited me to come back to boot camp a couple times to talk about this topic to people taking the course. Even after just those first couple of years being in the classroom, I felt like I had learned some things and had some advice that I could give to people.

A couple of things have been helpful for me personally. One is efficiency. When I’m at work I work efficiently. That may be a little different from some of the culture in academic research and not everyone is used to it, but it lets me maximize the amount of time that I spend at home with my family. That’s really important to me.

The other is making sure you have a good support system. For me, that’s my husband, who has been the primary caregiver for our kids since they were born. He works fully from home right now and has been able to take time off and work part-time as the kids have been growing up. People find support in many forms, and being really conscious about figuring out that piece is critical.

In some ways, the modern era is making our lives a bit easier with work/life balance. Working remotely has been beneficial, for example. I think the expectations around work/life balance are also improving. I’ve noticed that people entering their first job out of college are paying attention to finding that balance. They’re trying to find pathways that may be less intense. That’s all really positive.

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