Interview With Mak Masavuli, Virology PhD Student
Innovator Interviews is based on highlighting the minds of Tech Innovators, Biomedical Scientist, Physicians, Students, Science Communicators, and Entrepreneurs, who have made or are making an impact in their respective fields.
We welcome Mak Masavuli, a 3rd year PhD student in Virology, University of Adelaide, Australia to Innovator Interviews. Mak received his BSc in Biomedical Science with Honors from the University of Adelaide, Australia. Mak is a creative graduate student looking to merge his passion for Art and Science, with Science Communication (SciComm). This interview focuses on Mak’s passion, his thriving social media presence in SciComm, and a deep insight into the world of Virology that he studies.
If you’d like to get in contact with Mak or are interested in his SciComm activities, you can follow the links below.
When did you know that you wanted to be a scientist?
I always have been interested in solving puzzles. I know it’s a bit cliché, but ‘why’ and ‘how’ were my favorite words growing up and it drove my parent and my teachers mad! I was sent to the principal’s office many times as a kid because I kept calling out my teachers and correcting them every time I thought they were wrong about something. So, science for me has always been one way cultivate my curiosity. There is always something new and exciting to learn when it comes to science and I love that!
What is the focus of your research?
My PhD research is focused on the developing a DNA vaccine for the Hepatitis C virus (HCV). The ultimate aim of my project is to create a vaccine that is cheap (because most hepatitis C infections occur in poor countries so the vaccine has to be affordable), stable (meaning it doesn’t require the cold chain), immunogenic (need as few boosters as possible) and DNA vaccine check those boxes. It is just a matter of finding the right vaccine formulation. I have made several DNA vaccines and I’m at the stage where I’m testing the vaccines in mice to look at how immunogenic they are and the data we have been gathering lately has been promising. The next stage would be to test the same vaccines in large animals (i.e. pigs) and see how they perform, but that’s quite a long way away.
Scientists are people too, what do you do for fun outside of research?
I enjoy running and did my first half marathon a couple of years ago. I also like art and music and pretty much anything creative. I play drums and used to DJ in my undergrad years. I paint/draw when I have time and recently started an Instagram and Facebook page for my art @makutiro.art. Funnily enough growing up most people though I would be an artist but I guess in the end science won.
ViralPhD, what is the focus of your SciComm pages?
I initially started the page viralPhD after a dinner conversation with my siblings about my PhD and realized that they didn’t really know or understand what exactly I was doing or what doing a PhD in science really meant. So, I started the page (ViralPhD IG), just sharing my daily activities around the lab and hopefully show that science is/can be fun and exciting in the process. I also want to start writing weekly posts about exciting research in virology that has caught my eye or just to explain a particular science topic.
Interviewer’s Note: Mak Also has a website, https://viralphd.wordpress.com/. You can see new virology research and pretty awesome artsy science posts there.
What is your stance on the Importance of Science Communication (SciComm) and outreach?
The world is becoming more complex and nearly every aspect of our lives is governed in some way by science. People are asking questions because there has been a history of deception, whether intentional or not, that has led people to have issues of trust and uncertainty when it comes to science. SciComm is important because it helps people understand and relate to the way things work.
I believe as a scientist it is our job to reach out to the public and inform them, and have a dialogue about concerns that they might have about particular scientific issues (whether it’s global warming, vaccines, stem cell research and so on). I think in the past maybe scientists have been too quick to dismiss people’s concerns without exactly explaining why. Without good science communication, the gap between scientists and the public who are the users of science products will increase, and trust in scientists and their products is likely to decrease.
Another reason I think SciComm is important is to shows people that scientists are ‘normal people’ just like everybody, which is why I started my Instagram. I mean if you ask someone to describe a scientist to you, most people would describe ‘an old white man in a white coat with crazy hair holding a test tube’ and that is the stereotype that is perpetuated almost everywhere. This, unfortunately, makes it difficult for some people, particularly young girls and people from minority groups to see themselves as scientists. By engaging with the public and sharing our work particularly through social media, it’s a way for us as scientists to show the diversity of people currently doing science and hopefully inspire the next generation of scientists.
What advice would you give to researchers and students interested in SciComm based on your experiences?
Go do it now! I love checking out what other people are up to! Just about everyone nowadays has a mobile phone with a good camera, so I encourage everyone to start sharing their research on twitter, Instagram or any other platform, or better yet start a blog or vlog and let’s talk science!
Time Travel: What is the #1 piece of advice you would give yourself in your first year of grad school?
Believe in yourself and work smarter not harder!
Where do you see yourself in 5 years, as a communicator and as a researcher?
I’m really interested in infectious diseases and vaccinology. So, I see myself working in those areas. Currently, I have a big interest in the work being done around making vaccines for Malaria. I also would love to one day combine my love for science and art and start a SciArt project. I believe art is a very powerful form of communication and as a scientist, we need all the help we can get to communicate with the public, particularly with the rise of fake news and Clickbait.
Favorite scientist of all time and why?
My favorite scientist would be Maurice Hilleman a microbiologist and vaccinologist. He developed eight of the fourteen vaccines that are now routinely administered around the world. He is credited with saving more lives than any other scientist of the 20th century! During his career, he developed vaccines for measles, mumps, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chickenpox, meningitis, and pneumonia, as well as one for a virulent strain of the flu. He had a rough childhood but he managed to get a scholarship to Montana State University, graduated first in his class and then earned a fellowship at the University of Chicago where he graduated with a doctoral degree in microbiology. The fact that most people don’t know who he is, but can easily name all the Kardashians, says a lot about our society’s idea of celebrity and heroism.
What exciting techniques/fields of science do you see as important or are up-and-coming in the scientific community?
In virology and vaccinology apart from DNA vaccines, another new exciting technique in vaccine development is ‘virus-like particle vaccines’. Virus-like particles basically mimic the structure of a virus but cannot cause disease and are therefore much safer than traditional vaccines. The virus structure can be used as a platform to display harmless part or proteins of the disease which you want to vaccinate against.
These virus-like structures serve as an important danger signal for the body and the immune system will produce antibodies against the disease. Virus-like particle vaccines are particularly important because they are cheaper to produce and are highly immunogenic (don’t need adjuvants) and they can be modified to make vaccines for controlling diseases such as cancer, asthma, allergies and cardiovascular diseases.