by Shuxuan Zheng
Blaise Pascal said that "Little things console us because little things afflict us." In the time of COVID-19, Pascal's words have never been more prescient. Viruses – those little things behind the global microbiological threat – demand not only our fear but also our respect.
As a Chinese virology PhD candidate currently working in the Netherlands, I have learned a lot from viruses – those cheeky, creative, and sneaky genetic entities that share a sense of tenacity with my PhD life. Without disregarding the severity of COVID-19, I want to share what it's like to be a small PhD cog in the virology wheel.
A year ago, I came to the Netherlands and started my PhD life at University Medical Center (UMC) of Utrecht. The first thing I set on my office desk was the book cover of Thinking Like a Phage: The Genius of the Viruses that Infect Bacteria and Archaea by Merry Youle, a freelance microbiology author who's been a great inspiration to me. On March 20, 2020, amongst all the other bad news, it was reported on these pages that Youle had passed away. I wanted to take the time honor her legacy and share my story about why virology is so important.
Bobbing in mid-Pacific waves, or swirling in the roiling waters of an acidic hot spring, stuck in the mucus covering a coral polyp, ensconced in a crack in a desert rock, or trapped in the remains of an enchilada in your gut, a bacterium bursts open and 25, a hundred, perhaps a thousand multi-faceted jewels spill out from the carcass – the fruits of a successful phage infection. Riding the currents or ricocheting off cells and flotsam, these tiny hopeful particles disperse randomly, drifting. Occasionally a lucky one collides with a suitable bacterium and sticks. Then minutes, hours, days, or months later, this cell, too, ruptures and another horde ventures forth. The odds are against individual success, but the voyagers are many. If fortune smiles, one of them will arrive at an obliging door, will enter and dine, and will repeat this ancient cycle yet once again.
These gorgeous words by Youle present viruses vividly. Upon reading, I wanted to know more about these "tiny hopeful particles" through my PhD in virology. The poetic and visceral description of a virus' daily life connected with me on a professional level as well. These words could also reflect the daily life of a virology PhD student – the odds are against you, and the cycle of science is ongoing, treacherous, and rewarding those who come before and after you.
A virus is a small part of a big world, and so is a PhD project
If you search "virus" in the NCBI database, more than 1,000,000 papers appear in the results.
I work with viruses, the smallest of all microbes. Scientists have spent hundreds of years working on them. They are tenacious. Theories are crafted on viral behavior with cells, experiments are carried out to test it, and at the end of the day, the virus mutates to avoid any and all theories and experiments. This is very similar to the mentality PhDs must adopt.
You may find that setting up your PhD project is daunting to begin. We know so much, yet so little. Your PhD project is a speck in the universe, but you can't stop trying to win the fight. Little things are what make big things happen, and keeping this in mind is necessary to collectively overcome the viral pandemic.
There is no cure for viral disease. Likewise, scientific discovery is endless
Vaccinations are preventative measures, but there is still no cure for viral disease. Social measures, such as self-isolation and social distancing, are a means to an end we cannot predict.
In the same sense, completing your PhD is only a step on the endless endeavor of the scientific process. That piece of paper with your name and the title "Dr." on it is only a mile marker along the road. It's proof that you've committed yourself to continually seeking scientific knowledge.
Viruses and PhD students only survive through collaboration
In the virus's case, it's unwanted. In a PhD's, it's necessary.
Humor aside, the state of the world is evidence that a virus's behavior is reliant on collaboration. Not only collaboration between the virus and its host, but also among all of us together. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it's important to see how it started from a small SARS-CoV-2 particle that interacted with many kinds of cellular and exocellular factors to reach their infection goal. It required the collaborative effort of internal cell infection and improved transmission, causing harm.
To overcome this virus, social collaborative efforts have been used to mitigate transmission. Likewise, a PhD requires a collaborative effort between their internal experiments and external connections to successfully benefit their respective field. The line between virus and PhD student is intent – one harms, and one provides benefit. In either case, collaboration is key. Science and health only move forward if we work together.
A virus evolves over time. So does a PhD
The most fascinating thing about viruses is that they mutate every time they replicate. Likewise, a PhD is an ever-expanding canvas – with every mistake or bad guess, it gives the chance to try again. We must be able to mutate and adapt to new ideas and recognize where things need improvement.
As Walt Whitman put it, "Being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them."
Viral diseases have shaped the history and evolution of life on Earth, as acknowledged by David M. Knipe and Peter Howley in Fields Virology. Here we are now, part of another remarkable point in history, contributing to the development of new concepts in virology.
In this time, I find myself replying Youle's words in my mind. "Finally I returned to my first love, biology," she wrote, "especially the microbes in all their creative diversity."
Thank you, Merry Youle. Your words inspire new students of virology to return to our first love, and as we continue to discover the creative ways microbes behave, it fuels our drive to research in these perilous times.
Shuxuan Zheng is a PhD candidate in Virology at UMC Utrecht. She received her Masters of Preventive Veterinary Medicine (MPVM) degree in China in 2018. Shuxuan played around with the smallest animal virus, PCV2, during her veterinarian training. Now, she researches the (literally and figuratively) larger virus HSV1.