Professor Ailsa Hall of the School of Biology will give her Inaugural Lecture, ‘The No. 1 Ladies Disease Detective Agency; from mortuaries to marine mammals’.
About Professor Hall’s research and lecture
My journey into the world of CSI and Silent Witness began not with the corpses and cadavers themselves, but with the people who carry out the post mortem examinations. What do they die of and what risks do they face from carrying out their investigations? Undertaking an autopsy, particularly in cases of sudden death, often results in pathologists and morticians being exposed to a variety of infectious agents of unknown virulence. This study, which formed part of my PhD at the Institute of Occupational Health, University of Birmingham, led to a new code of practice for the prevention of infection in post mortem rooms. And this field of research, known as epidemiology (meaning ‘upon the people’), then led me into my first post-doctoral study following up a mysterious disease called ‘the Epping Jaundice’ which really was a true story of disease detection so intriguing that it was the subject of a radio play in the late 1960s.
And then, in 1988, an unknown infection spread through the population of harbour seals in the North Sea, resulting in hundreds of dead animals washing ashore along the coast of Europe and the UK. Fortunately for me, but not the seals, the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU), then based in Cambridge, advertised for an epidemiologist to help investigate the underlying factors and I was lucky enough to get the job. The infection was soon identified as a virus named phocine distemper but what was interesting was that the mortality rates differed around the country. One hypothesis for the cause of this variation was that chemicals sequestered into the fat stores of the seals, collectively known as the persistent organic pollutants, were affecting the immune system of the animals. Thus, the first studies I was involved in at SMRU focussed on investigating this hypothesis and I have been researching the impact of these compounds on a range of marine mammals and how they affect immunity and reproduction ever since.
When SMRU moved to St Andrews in 1996 I worked with the late Dr Val Smith on immune function in seals, both on the immunotoxicology of chemical exposure but also on some more fundamental immunocompetence research involving species as diverse as southern elephant seals breeding on a sub-Antarctic island to sea lions in the Galapagos. My interest in disease impacts and mass mortalities has given me the opportunity to collaborate with researchers all over the world, working on studies as varied as the effect of toxins from harmful algae on UK seals to urogenital cancer in California sea lions. But I also had the opportunity to get involved in studies of marine mammal physiology, one of which led to some surprising, albeit serendipitous results!
But what are the current and future disease risks for marine mammals? Has pollutant exposure reduced over time? What can we learn about pathogenesis and carcinogenesis in marine mammals that can broaden our understanding of disease risks for other wildlife and indeed humans? I will conclude my lecture with some thoughts about the future of marine mammals in a changing world.
The Lecture will be followed by a Reception in Lower College Hall. All are welcome.