Head of Systems Biology
by Christopher WoelkMy name is Christopher Woelk but most Wellingtonians of my era would know me as Topher, my nickname, the last half of Christopher. I was in the Hopetoun from 1989 to 1994 and thoroughly enjoyed my time at the college apart from singing competitions as I’m tone deaf. Although, I should have paid more attention as Will Young was a couple years below in the Hopetoun and made quite a career out of it. After bouncing back and forth across the pond from San Diego, California to Southampton, Hampshire, I now live in Boston, Massachusetts.
What inspired you to work in Scientific Research?
My love of biology set me on this career path and that was firmly instilled by a fantastic biology teacher at Wellington named Richard Williams. Mr. Williams always brought an energy and enthusiasm to the classroom that was infectious, and I was a convert.
What is your speciality and how is the present Covid-19 pandemic affecting your normal working routine?
I am currently Head of Systems Biology at an Exploratory Science Center belonging to MSD (Merck Sharp and Dohme), a large pharmaceutical company. My specialty is using computational biology to analyse the rich data that we can now generate from patients and their microbiomes (e.g. genomes and transcriptomes) in order to understand mechanisms of disease. MSD is the one of the largest vaccine manufacturers in the world, so you can imagine that things are quite busy during the COVID19 pandemic. Specifically, I’m involved in a collaboration with the Institute of Systems Biology in Seattle to understand the immune response to COVID19 and how it differs between patients with mild versus severe symptoms.
How did you get to where you are today?
After Wellington I went up to Nottingham University for a degree in Biochemistry and Genetics of which the latter subject was at the time a new and emerging science. I then spent a lot of time in the pubs in Oxford and miraculously, 3 years later, came away with a PhD in the evolution of zoonotic viruses (quite relevant in the COVID19 era). I threw myself into academic research with a long stint at a Center for AIDS Research at the University of California in San Diego and eventually became a professor at the University of Southampton before finally joining MSD about 3 years ago in 2017.
What advice would you give to students/young OWs who would like to join the medical profession?
My bias has always been towards scientific research. There is nothing better than planning out a complex experiment, generating the data and then cracking the question at hand. A PhD is useful training in this respect, but medical degrees also lead to research careers as well as clinical duties. Medics often have a better chance of getting funding for their research and can always fall back on their medical training if the grants don’t come through.
What is it like working within health care at the moment?
I must admit, it is a very exciting time at the moment for a scientist who works in the realm of infectious diseases. I understand that current lockdowns carry a certain amount of boredom for my neighbours but it is the opposite for me at the moment. I’m constantly on zoom meetings and planning experiments to try to learn as much as we can about this virus that has us all shut down, so that we can design vaccines and therapeutics and get back on top.
What are your career highlights?
If I was at Wellington today, I’d probably be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. The highlights of my career have been the ability to bounce around several different disease areas and tackle interesting question after interesting question. Some of my favourite research has been to use artificial intelligence to identify bacterial antigens to incorporate into vaccines and to work with the U.S. Marine Corps to identify biomarkers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Do you have a fond memory from your time at Wellington that you would like to share or perhaps a particular teacher that really stood out?
We would have to bring it back to Richard Williams, who was out sick for several weeks during our A-level studies. I was entrusted by Mr. Williams with the overhead projector (google it) so that we could continue with the lesson plans. This was my first taste of teaching and probably drove my initial career towards academic teaching and research.