For this week’s alumni profile we spoke to alumnus Prof. David Dance. David was a Senior Lecturer for the Department of Clinical Sciences (1990-4) at LSHTM. Today he is Senior Clinical Research Fellow/Consultant Microbiologist at Lao-Oxford-Mahosot Hospital-Wellcome Trust Research Unit and Honorary Professor, Faculty of Infectious and Tropical Diseases at LSHTM. Last month, David was awarded the Cross of Labour medal by the government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos).
What did you study at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and why?
I studied the MSc Medical Microbiology course between 1983-4. I was very fortunate. When I joined the UK Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS) in the 1980s, it was standard practice for trainees to be funded to attend a full-time MSc course.
How has your degree at LSHTM complemented your career?
Studying at LSHTM opened my eyes to the world of medicine and microbiology in the tropics and confirmed my view that I wanted to work there myself. I was very lucky that an opportunity came up, just as I was completing my microbiology training in the UK, to work with Dr (now Prof. Sir) Nick White in Thailand in 1986, and this is when I first started working on melioidosis. This fascinating disease is hugely neglected, but is thought to kill around 90,000 people a year worldwide, more than diseases that are much better known like leptospirosis and dengue. Much of my career has been devoted to highlighting the under-recognition of this treatable disease, culminating in the recent publication of a book on the Global Burden and Challenges of Melioidosis (https://www.mdpi.com/books/pdfview/book/1183).
I returned to the UK for 20 years from 1990-2010, working initially at LSHTM, where I continued my research on melioidosis and ended up as Course Organiser of the Medical Microbiology MSc course that I had done myself a decade earlier.
I then returned to the PHLS as Director of Plymouth Public Health Laboratory and later became Regional Microbiologist for SW England in the Health Protection Agency, the successor of the PHLS. There was always a strong link between these organisations and LSHTM and I was extremely grateful for the solid scientific grounding that my year at the School had given me, underpinning my clinical and public health work. During that time I served on the Council of the Royal College of Pathologists, the Council of the British Infection Society, and the Executive Committee of the Association of Medical Microbiologists.
But the lure of the tropics was strong, especially the feeling that I had ‘unfinished business’ with melioidosis. Once again I was extremely lucky that the opportunity to return to work in Asia, this time in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) presented itself to me at the age of 54. I have never for a second regretted taking that opportunity. During more than 8 years there I worked on a wide range of bacterial infections in addition to melioidosis, and put a huge amount of effort into developing the capacity of local staff and improving the quality of laboratory and data management in the government laboratory in Mahosot Hospital, one of the few laboratories in the country that undertakes a significant amount of diagnostic microbiology.
Were the relationships you formed at LSHTM useful – in what way?
Extremely. The worlds of tropical medicine, microbiology and public health are actually quite small and I have remained in contact with many of my teachers, colleagues and students throughout my career. It may not be a coincidence that a number of them have ended up working on melioidosis!
The experience of mixing with people from so many different cultures and countries has also been very useful in helping me to understand other perspectives than the rather narrow world view with which I grew up. The School is such a wonderful melting pot.
I established an LSHTM Alumni Chapter in Vientiane while I was in Laos, and it was a real surprise how many alumni ‘came out of the woodwork’! We had some wonderful gatherings and everyone spoke very fondly of their time at the School.
Please summarise how you feel about being awarded the Cross of Labour medal?
I am now on the verge of retirement from full time work after spending nearly 9 years in Asia. I have been deeply honoured to be awarded the Cross of Labour by the government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The most pleasing aspect of this is that it would not have happened without me being proposed and supported by my Lao colleagues – so clearly the years of pressure, encouragement, cajoling, and sometimes nagging, as we strove to improve the quality and data management in the laboratory to underpin our research, have not completely alienated them!
What do you hope to further achieve in your field in the future?
Although I am retiring from full-time work and am looking forward to more time to travel and pursue some of my hobbies, not to mention spending more time with my wife and family, I will not be giving up work completely.
My main plan is to write a book about the very early history of melioidosis, which was discovered in Burma in 1911, with which I have become increasingly fascinated over the past few years, but I will also be open to getting involved in any interesting projects on melioidosis.
I have also always loved teaching and hope that once I am back in the UK there will be opportunities to do some teaching at LSHTM.
What advice do you have for current students?
Have a plan if you want to, but don’t expect to be able to follow it – chance events are much more likely to shape your future, so be open to any opportunities that look interesting.
After my time in Laos, I tried to distill out 4 characteristics that I hoped I had managed to encourage in my young colleagues:
If they can keep these going after I have left, then I will feel I have done my job!
Congratulations Prof. David Dance on the awarding of your medal. We are incredibly proud to have you as part of our alumni community!