“I guess most people don’t think about this very beautiful, coordinated cellular response to make antibodies…” Michelle Linterman’s passion for her subject is immediately obvious. Born and bred on the Kapiti Coast, Michelle is a globally-renowned immunologist at the Babraham Institute, a site for biomedical research centred around an old red-brick manor house in a rolling natural landscape just outside Cambridge. This picturesque English setting provides the research group she established ten years ago with cutting-edge laboratory facilities for testing responses to new vaccines. Early in the pandemic, Michelle’s ten-person team at the Babraham ran an important preclinical study of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine in aged mice, in order to test - faster than could be tested in ageing humans - how that vaccine would act in older bodies.
The Linterman Group’s wider research programme centres on the “nuts and bolts” of how the immune system mounts a good response against vaccination, and why vaccines don’t always work as well for certain age groups. Michelle’s team tests the detailed cellular and molecular functioning of vaccines against a range of human diseases, such as malaria and influenza.
As with anyone running a small business, Michelle’s schedule is a balancing act, with only part of her time going into the “actual” work for which she is internationally known. Heading a diverse team of early-stage researchers as Group Leader means she must stay abreast of their various projects and career development. She tries to block at least one day a week for her own writing, reviewing papers and the grant applications which facilitate her team’s research. The PhD researchers whose work she supervises are affiliated with the University of Cambridge, where she is a Teaching Fellow at Churchill College. Her academic commitments also include animal and human ethics committees, and equality and diversity initiatives.
Growing up in Waikanae, Michelle couldn’t have predicted where her early interest in biology would lead her. Her career path in biomedical research was shaped by the fortunate interaction between available funding and inspiring mentorship, from her undergraduate studies at Victoria University of Wellington, to her doctoral work at Australian National University and finally the postdoc research which brought her to Cambridge. She particularly benefited from her prestigious appointment as an EMBO Young Investigator in the life sciences, and the European Research Council grant which allowed her to establish her laboratory group.
These awards also helped her build a supportive network of colleagues and collaborators around the world. “Often the people who give the best advice are the ones who have just done what it is that you need to do, rather than the people who developed their career two decades before you did, when the landscape’s completely changed”, Michelle notes. “Science is really international, and it’s all about connecting the right people” and sharing technologies or platforms to advance knowledge. Because of this, Michelle is disappointed about the UK’s loss of European funding streams post-Brexit, and particularly those collaborative grants which foster multiple, small-scale interactions between labs in different countries.
Michelle and her Kiwi partner return almost annually to New Zealand, but are unlikely to move back permanently, given their highly-specialised academic careers and the much-tighter funding availability in Australasia. Her laboratory’s work is underpinned by significant UK research funding, particularly through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Nonetheless, Michelle works actively to maintain links with the NZ scientific community through the Malaghan Institute, New Zealand’s vaccine and immunology research centre in Wellington, and is looking forward to strengthening these ties when she welcomes an up-and-coming wahine Maori researcher from the Malagan to her team next year. Michelle is excited about how such collaborations can help narrow the health inequality gap and improve the care of the ageing population in New Zealand, even though she herself is based on the other side of the world.
Outside of the lab, Michelle enjoys performances of Shakespeare in the Cambridge college gardens and at the Globe in London, and also Kiwi-style outdoor activities in the Scottish Highlands. “I guess we Kiwis are culturally primed quite well to fit into life in the UK,” she reflects. Even having spent almost half her life abroad, she attributes her open, straightforward approach to her Kiwi upbringing. A ‘can-do’ attitude lies behind her drive to improve global health outcomes through supporting the development of effective vaccines. In Michelle’s view, New Zealanders are “people who see a problem and instead of passing it on, say ‘alright, I’m going to solve it’”.