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I am a vet!

We talk to Sarah Cleaveland, OBE, who won last year's BBSRC 'Innovator of the Year' award for International Impact. The work of the Scottish-based vet is credited with having saved hundreds of human lives.

Sarah Cleaveland

Sarah Cleaveland
© Felix Lankester

“I still call myself a vet and I am a vet!” Sarah Cleaveland, OBE reflecting the pride she has in the work that she does. Her comment very much illustrates how her work has diversified with a much broader scope of activities and contributions being made by someone who is still in the veterinary profession. 

Now based at the University of Glasgow she is recognised for her work on animal and human infectious diseases, most notably, rabies in Africa.

She grew up in Somerset, received her veterinary training in Cambridge, got her PhD in London, went on to work in Edinburgh, and then to Glasgow. As she puts it, “I meandered around a bit, but very much enjoy being based in Scotland”.

Last year she and the University of Glasgow team received BBSRC’s Innovator of the Year award for ‘International Impact’, in recognition of their research that has informed the development of new strategies to control livestock diseases in Tanzania, including foot-and-mouth and malignant catarrhal fever.

Sarah’s story is a familiar one amongst researchers, a career that has developed and bloomed over time but not necessarily the career path that was planned. “I trained first of all as a biologist. At the end of my degree it was a series of setbacks that got me to where I am today. I applied to be a biologist for the British Antarctic Survey and didn’t get that job and subsequently entered vet medicine and training, I did a year in practice but, for medical reasons, was unable to continue in practice and took up a research position at London Zoo, my first exposure of a research environment”.

It was during that time that she had an opportunity to go to Tanzania on the Serengeti Cheetah project as a volunteer. It was to be a pivotal experience that has helped shape the rest of her career.

“During that work I got involved with an outbreak of rabies in African wild dogs and that really stimulated my interest in rabies”.

“On a bad day, and we all have them, I remember why I am doing this. When I hear about a case history, perhaps in a remote community where a person has been bitten by a rabid dog and the impact that has on their family, then you realise why this work really matters.”

Driven by her interest in rabies she developed a proposal and BBSRC’s predecessor, the Agricultural and Food Research Council agreed to fund the work.

Today professor Cleaveland is a much respected researcher, with a wealth of experience that gives her a unique opportunity to make a difference, and she has earned a profile that means she is listened to. She replies with a laugh, “Yes, I hope so although I’m not quite sure about that. It is definitely the case that I have a fantastic platform now with the profile of the work that has been done - to be able to talk about some of these problems.  That’s of real importance for the group of neglected diseases that we are working on, raising awareness about their impact and potential mitigating actions”.

Although she now has the platform to highlight and encourage change, she recognises it isn’t always easy, “I think rabies illustrates this really well, we think we have lined up all the evidence that makes a clear case, a rational case, to do something about rabies globally and there’s very strong leadership internationally now to do that, but actually translating that into effective national policy and programmes is still quite challenging”.

This additional role of a leading researcher and scientist to deliver and demonstrate impact clearly highlights that there are many facets to the job, so is this a new responsibility? “I do think quite a lot of different skills are being demanded of us but this is now a very important role. Much gets asked of scientists, they are expected to be able to fulfil all these roles, be excellent communicators and be great at public engagement, to inform policy and demonstrate the impact of our research. It’s a lot to ask of individuals but I think collectively as an academic group we have a clear responsibility to do that”.

Sarah Cleaveland

Sarah Cleaveland
© Felix Lankester

In 2014 she was awarded the OBE for her services to veterinary epidemiology, “It’s an amazing and wonderful accolade. It’s been an incredible few years for the recognition of the work. It’s still really hard to believe that’s it’s happened. But it’s not just about an individual, it’s a reflection of an incredible team of people that I have been working with. I’m also delighted for the recognition of the kind of work we do and the role that vets can play”.

She plays down the fact that her work has made a real difference, she is credited as having prevented hundreds of human deaths. “On a bad day, and we all have them, I remember why I am doing this. When I hear about a case history, perhaps in a remote community where a person has been bitten by a rabid dog and the impact that has on their family, then you realise why this work really matters.”

We end the conversation on an inspirational high, now in her mid-50’s she acknowledges she has around 10 more working years in which she wants to maximise her skills and knowledge, it’s something many of us plan and very few actually do, “I’m re-focussing where I can best use my skills in the remainder of my career. There are contributions I can make but there’s only so much you can do in 10 years so, and I want to be focussed”.

Professor Cleaveland emphasises that the partnerships forged in Tanzania remain really strong and most recently her work in Malignant Catarrhal Fever field trials have shown a definite interest in upscaling vaccinations, with a view to looking at large scale production. The future looks to be a busy one.