Never forget that humility is the mark of greatness

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.

Justin O’Grady has always been interested in the microscopic, starting with a B.Sc. in Microbiology, then a M.Sc. in Infectious Diseases Molecular Diagnostics, and then a Ph.D. in Molecular Diagnosis of Bacterial Pathogens in Food, all at the National University of Ireland Galway. After completing a Post Doc at NUIG, he temporarily left the academic scene to spend two years with Beckman Coulter working on real time PCR based molecular diagnostics, before moving into a Post Doc position at University College London. In 2013, he transferred to the University of East Anglia, where he now serves as a Senior Lecturer in Medical Microbiology.

What are you working on right now?

I am currently working on the rapid molecular diagnosis of infection. I have a particular interest in the application of nanopore metagenomic sequencing because of the depth of information produced and the rapid turnaround time to results. A major current project is a diagnostics trial which is comparing three technologies; two PCR based tests and nanopore metagenomics, for the rapid diagnosis of hospital acquired pneumonia. We expect to sequence approx. 750 pneumonia samples over the coming 9 months which will be a vast amount of MinION metagenomics data! The best performing of the three tests will be brought forward to a randomised controlled trial to determine the impact rapid diagnostics have on patient outcomes and antimicrobial stewardship. We are also working on novel methods for the rapid removal of human nucleic acid from clinical samples. These techniques are crucial for the rapid and cost effective sequencing of clinical samples for the diagnosis of infection. I am interested in many diseases apart from pneumonia, particularly sepsis, urinary tract infections, tuberculosis and meningitis.

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

Convincing the clinical microbiology field (and funding authorities!) that microbiological culture is not fit-for-purpose for the diagnosis of acute infection and needs to be replaced with faster technology that is equally comprehensive. Clinical microbiology is not a fast moving field and does not adopt new technology quickly, however, given a sufficient body of high quality evidence, change will be embraced. I am determined to help provide this evidence over the coming years.

Improving the Diagnosis and Management of Serious Infection Using Nanopore Metagenomic Sequencing

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

I would like to see more high quality diagnostic trials of rapid metagenomics for the diagnosis of a number of important infections including sepsis, tuberculosis and meningitis. We need the evidence to convince scientists, clinicians and politicians that this is the future.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Securing my first faculty position – it was a long and difficult road and there were times I thought I might have to consider a different career path. Making a move from Ireland to London in my post-doc years helped kick-start my career and although it was a difficult time with a young family and very little money, it helped me get to where I am today. I have published >60 articles since my first in 2008, some of which I am very proud of, some of which could have been better! However, they were all important on my path to tenure. The two years I spent in industry was an invaluable experience and has helped me build and maintain good relationships with sequencing and diagnostics companies, thus enabling me to translate my research efficiently.

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

Female and male Dr Whos, Rosalind Franklin and Frederick Sanger. I think it would be really interesting to watch female and male versions of the same person interact – I am sure we could all learn a lot from that! Understanding DNA and how to sequence it are two discoveries that have had a major impact on my career and Franklin and Sanger are heroes of mine.

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

There is no substitute for hard work – there will always be people out there that are more intelligent, at better institutions, have more resources etc, but if you are tenacious and work hard, you can be as successful as anyone. I must also say, find yourself a good mentor – I have been mentor and mentee and both have been hugely rewarding and helpful to my career.

Opinions and views expressed in The Short Read are the interviewee’s and not those of the home institution