Jemma Geoghegan 2022

Dr Jemma Geoghegan wants to “demolish the stereotype of what a scientist looks like”.

Dr Geoghegan has today become just the second woman to win the Te Puiaki Kaipūtaiao Maea Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize.

The University of Otago researcher is one of the scientists behind New Zealand’s COVID-19 genome sequencing programme and plans to use the $200,000 prize to inspire more women to pursue science.

“I’m still in shock from having received this privilege,” Dr Geoghegan says. “Being the second woman to have received this award makes me feel like I’m contributing to breaking the stigma of what it means to be a person in science and it’s also so rewarding to see the research we did into infectious diseases getting this recognition and support.”

Dr Geoghegan believes that the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to highlight the great importance behind infectious disease research and plans to use the funds from this award to support further study and student training.

“I plan to use this money for ongoing research in my lab to explore viruses in nature and to better understand their ecology and evolution,” Dr Geoghegan says. “I also want to build more capability in this area to train the next generation of scientists, so that we are better prepared for the next pandemic.”

Based in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Dr Geoghegan is a Rutherford Discovery Fellow who works with the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) to understand how viruses might evolve and spread.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first reached New Zealand in 2020, she helped to establish the genome sequencing of COVID-19 cases in the country, in collaboration with other scientists at ESR.

“Sequencing a genome is basically reading the instruction manual of that living organism,” Dr Geoghegan says. “All living organisms have a genome; they are made up of letters which basically provide instructions about what that organism will do and viruses actually have quite small genomes.”

The coronavirus genome is 30,000 letters long, which she says is very small when compared to the human genome.  The sequencing process involves “reading a genome’s letters” and then comparing those to the “letters” in another virus.

The genomic sequencing from this programme has been used as a key tool for understanding and limiting the spread of COVID-19 in New Zealand; a critical part to the country’s public health response.

“Genomics sequencing data has helped to identify, for example, sources of infections where physical links were unclear or clarify the cluster membership cases during community outbreaks,” Dr Geoghegan says. “It has also identified the causes of various incursions at the border.”

This information enabled public health decision-makers to avoid more lockdowns than necessary and improve their understanding regarding COVID-19 transmission during flights and in managed isolation facilities.

Dr Geoghegan’s work is unique, highly cited and influential, with her next research investigation looking at why and how viruses move to new hosts in the first place, to better understand virus diversity.

“I think the best thing about this work is the collaborators that I get to work with now on a daily basis,” Dr Geoghegan says. “Seeing what started out as our research project quickly be integrated into helping New Zealand better understand and respond to the pandemic was particularly rewarding.”

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