Spotlight on….Professor Mark Chambers, Professor of Veterinary Bacteriology
Mark is Professor of Veterinary Bacteriology at the School of Veterinary Medicine and one of the experts who teaches on our MSc in Veterinary Microbiology. Mark holds a joint appointment with the Animal Plant and Health Agency (APHA). He talks here about his career as a government scientist and an educator, which offers the best of both worlds.
Did you develop an interest in science at a young age?
As a child, I was always interested in nature – understanding the complexities of the natural world and the way we live in it. I also developed an early fascination with reasons for things going awry, be it a broken radio, a friend being taken ill, or a sick animal. I felt that if I could better understand why something stopped working, I could mend it.
How did you start out in your career?
My interest in science and scientific discovery developed throughout my school years; I chose biology and physics A-levels and was energised and excited by ways in which different elements work as a whole. Rummaging through local skips, looking for things that I could mend, became the highlight of my week!
Despite low confidence levels, I did well at school and applied to study cell and molecular pathology at the University of Bristol, which covered aspects of botany, biochemistry and molecular biology, followed by a PhD at Cambridge, where I focused on cervical cancer. I had an aunt who died of cancer when I was nine, so old enough to understand the impact that her death had on my family. I remember the very strong feeling that if I had anything to do with it; nobody would suffer again.
Did you consider studying human medicine?
I’ve always had a quest for understanding, but was more interested in the pre-clinical aspects of medicine; having been influenced by the 1980s series Quincy I’d like to have been the first person on the scene of a crime.
I’m also a great believer in lifelong learning. It was Professor Gordon Dougan at Imperial College, who ignited my keen interest in vaccines and the interaction between host and pathogen. What goes on in those very early moments? What can we do to influence this? With veterinary bacteriology, you get to work with real animal diseases, which is not the case in human medicine.
What is your role at APHA?
After two post-doc positions at Imperial College, I joined the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (now the Animal and Plant Health Agency) in 1996, where I have worked on vaccines, pathology, small animal models, and diagnostics for animal tuberculosis. The myths and legend versus fact around TB in badgers presented a real opportunity for new breakthroughs and in the mid 1990s, breaking technology and early wins in DNA vaccines were exciting developments. Government at the time wasn’t interested in vaccination, but our ongoing research laid the foundations for subsequent governments to make it a credible alternative to culling.
Has there been a highlight of your career to date?
To date, I’d say the highlight has been the licensing of BadgerBCG - the first licensed vaccine against TB in any animal species. Having worked on both animal and human tuberculosis and seen a project through from beginning to end is enormously gratifying.
You now hold a joint position as Head of Bacteriology at APHA and Professor of Veterinary Bacteriology at APHA. What attracted you to the role?
My philosophy in life is ‘always enjoy what you are doing, stop doing it when you are not, and follow what excites you’. Surrey presented the opportunity to focus on disease in its broadest sense and I am very proud to be a government scientist with a position at a top UK university.
Would you say you have the best of both worlds?
Absolutely! Pursuing innovative ideas, whilst being grounded in real-world problems and the complexity of government policy and decision-making, combined with teaching students (I teach on our veterinary biosciences and veterinary microbiology courses as well as teaching vet students).
I am also collaborating with the expert veterinary pathologists based in the University’s Veterinary Pathology Centre, as well as having access to samples and materials for research purposes. I see myself as a car mechanic, lifting the bonnet, making a diagnosis and using the tools in my toolbox to fix a problem….work that is truly energising.