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Welcome to The Short Read, our weekly peek behind the curtain at the people who make this amazing community tick. Make sure to check back every Tuesday for the latest installment.

Damien Tully

Damien Tully, Research Fellow, Harvard Medical School

Hailing from Trinity College Dublin, Damien Tully crossed the globe and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Nebraska Center for Virology. There he led studies researching the evolution of HIV-1 infection in mother/infants pairs from Zambia.


Now, Damien is researching HIV and Hepatitis C transmission at the Ragon Institute, an umbrella research institute under Harvard, MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).

Using the Nanpore MinION to sequence these viruses in patients, Damien and his team look to predict how the virus will evolve in patients and identify infection ‘hot spots’.

What are you working on right now?

What we’re trying to do is use viral genome sequencing to try and predict where outbreaks in HIV and HCV will happen, and anticipate the specific changes in the personality of these viruses.

The acute phase, between two and six weeks after infection, is a window when a lot of evolutionary changes happen to the virus genome in response to the host immune system, which is what we can actually measure in longitudinal NGS studies on HIV.

So what we’re really trying to understand is what regions of the virus change in an infected person, and how this change passes from one individual to another. In a new initiative working with the Center for Disease Control (CDC),  we will be carrying out a national surveillance program to detect infectious disease outbreaks and identify ‘hotspots’ for infection.

From there, we can have local teams visit these hotspots and carry out community surveys to try to understand the social influences also impacting transmission rates. For example, for Hepatitis C infection hotspots, dramatic increases in prescription drug use has facilitated behaviors such as needle sharing.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your work at the moment?

In the US right now the biggest concern is funding, particularly with the current administration…

We’re lucky that a local Boston Billionaire (Terry Ragon) created the institute with a $100 million gift, and Bruce Walker (our director) had the foresight to formulate a more ambitious idea of composing a institute of scientists, engineers and physicians from MIT, Harvard and MGH. This interdisciplinary approach gives us a better understanding of how the body fights infections and creates non traditional partnerships among groups  encompassing clinical, engineering and immunological expertise.

However, a lot of research that used to get funding is now going to have problems. But saying that, science has often gone through these crisis phases, and always somehow gets through.

Name one big development that you would like to see in your field the next 18 months.

Coming from such different disciplines, as a group sometimes we’re not so great at communicating. This can be said for scientists in general. 

So seeing scientists in the field communicate better and more coherently discuss their research which is published, will feed back into improved understanding from the public, and in turn could help a lot with the future of funding for the research.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Getting to where I am right now, as my journey hasn’t been plain sailing. In my high school in Ireland my biology teacher told me I was wasting my time – and that I should take up a practical trade.

I was never so academically minded, quite lazy, and didn’t come from one of the most affluent backgrounds. But him saying this made me say “I’m going to [show] you wrong.”

From there, I was the second in my family to go to university (my brother was the first), and the first to go on to do a PhD. 

Which scientists, living, dead, or fictional, would you invite to dinner, and why?

I met James Watson before, so it would have to be Charles Darwin. He’s so revolutionary for his time–the kinda guy i’d like to sit down for dinner with, and pick his brain. Back then everything was so much more…discoverable. I’d be star struck.

What advice do you wish someone had given you at the start of your career?

Don’t be a dreamer, but dream and dream big. For example, 20 years ago if you told people what the genomics space is doing, they’d laugh.

Also, you have to be persistent. We live in a world where it’s gloom and doom, and a lot of the time you’re swimming upstream against the current to get that grant. Maybe there’s a 10% chance. When submitting to journals, perhaps a 20% success rate.

So you have to be persistent to grow as a scientist. 


Why not check out The Short Read archives? 

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Liz Harley 
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Nick Lench
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Carlos Bustamante
“We’re All Adding Our Stone to the Pile” 

Dr. Carlos Bustamante

Paula Goldenberg
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Said Ismail
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James Christensen 
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Enrique Velazquez
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Opinions and views expressed in The Short Read are the interviewee’s and not those of the home institution