Inspiring peopleToshana Foster

Nottingham Research Fellow
Toshana cropped
What is your role at the University?

I am a virologist, investigating what drives the transmission of emerging arenavirus infections from rodents to humans and the factors that lead to suppression of the immune system during infection.

Why did you apply for a Fellowship?

I grew as a confident researcher during my time as a postdoctoral associate at King’s College London (KCL) and I felt that after five years and great mentorship, I was ready to pursue my own ideas and become independent. The Nottingham Research Fellowship is ideal as it gives you the freedom and time to explore these ideas, while building your research team. It is a very competitive fellowship – the application process is rigorous and your research ideas are challenged to a level on a par with that of external funding bodies.

Why Nottingham?

Nottingham is attractive as the research environment is dynamic and diverse. After publishing a high-impact article on restriction factors of HIV as a postdoc at KCL, I was encouraged by my now mentor, Professor Jonathan Ball, to apply for the fellowship. I also had a lot of support from my School sponsor Dr Janet Daly. Both helped to convince me about developing a research career under the Nottingham umbrella and therefore to apply!

What has the experience been like?

I started just under three months ago. I have been able to set up the lab, do some experiments and have been busy writing a few grants for external funding already! The support for this, I must say, has been great. I am now part of the One Virology group, bringing together virologists across faculties – we share ideas, reagents and I have great support and mentorship for my career progression. The diverse range of research areas encourages a collaborative environment and there is a breadth of facilities available too.

How would you explain your research?

The recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa and increasing concerns about Zika and Chikungunya virus outbreaks in the Americas have had a global impact. Little is still known about these viruses, which cause severe and fatal viral haemorrhagic fevers (VHFs) in humans and have an immense impact on human health and on the socio-economic status of the developing world. The emergence of diseases from viruses that spill over to humans from their natural animal reservoir is difficult to predict. However, environmental changes and increased human-animal interactions increase the likelihood of new infections.My research focuses on arenaviruses, the largest family of VHF-causing viruses, that cross over from rodents to humans causing fatal epidemics, particularly in West Africa and South America. They cause hundreds of thousands of cases annually. In Nigeria, widespread infection from the most common arenavirus, Lassa, is currently causing high numbers of fatalities. No vaccine exists and there is no effective treatment. Moreover, novel arenaviruses have recently been isolated, posing new threats to the human population.

I will uncover how these viruses adapt to the human host cell environment and escape immune defences, using novel multi-disciplinary approaches to identify human protein targets to which arenavirus proteins bind, ultimately unravelling the pathways and mechanisms that are essential for successful viral spread and infection. This research will provide fundamental insights into viral processes that can potentially lead to improved treatments, identification of targets for antiviral therapy and approaches to rationally design vaccines.

What inspired you to pursue this area?

I am a virologist, specialising in restriction factors but with an interest in complementing biology with structural techniques – these interests particularly grew during my postdoctoral research. There is still a lot to be uncovered in the emerging virus field and I want to discover how viruses are able to engage with cellular antiviral immunity pathways and visualise the interactions on a molecular level. Despite the impact on human health, research on arenaviruses is rather neglected and I hope my insights will have an influence on what is known about the pathogenesis of other virus families.

What challenges are you hoping to tackle?
A distinctive feature of arenavirus infection in humans is immunosuppression that often leads to widespread, uncontrolled viral replication in organs. The disease can also vary from asymptomatic to fatal implying that the interplay between the host immune and viral replication is a major predictive factor for disease outcome.  My research aims to discover what drives the disparate responses to the host innate immune defence. This information is crucial for the development of novel therapeutic agents against arenaviruses and other emerging virus families.
What has been the greatest moment of your career so far?

It is difficult to pinpoint a single moment as it has been a great journey but having my work on innate immune factors in HIV recognised as influential by leaders in the field and published as a research highlight in Nature Reviews Microbiology has been a great one.

Who or what has helped you get to where you are today?

My family has been very supportive and understanding - I am always grateful to have a balance of personal and work life. My postdoctoral boss at KCL, Professor Stuart Neil, is a great mentor and I had the best time working in his lab; he inspired my line of research and it is always nice to have people who believe in your ability. Now at Nottingham, I have to thank Dr Janet Daly and Professor Jonathan Ball for their support and encouragement so far.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

As someone who is very new to this process, I would say believe in yourself and try to find the right balance of doing lab-work and working on applications for further funding. Get involved with projects led by your colleagues as your skill set could be a great contribution to a paper or grant application.

How does being based at The University of Nottingham allow you to fulfil your research aspirations?

Having the backbone of the One Virology group means that I have been able to build collaborations across faculties and have been able to bridge contacts externally and abroad more easily, having just started in a new field of research. To be immersed in this environment and to have access to the facilities at Nottingham which are world-class, are great drivers for my success. There has already been a lot of invaluable support for building grant applications; and opportunities to obtain general advice and guidance to develop as a well-rounded academic is accessible and highly encouraged. 

What next?

I want to continue the positive momentum I have at present, build my group and make an impact in the emerging virus field whilst doing exciting research.

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Toshana joined the One Virology Group within the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science in April 2018 as a Nottingham Research Fellow.

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