Alumni Innovators: Professor Sharon Peacock CBE

In this, our School’s 120th year, LSHTM alumna Sharon Peacock is also celebrating an anniversary: it’s 25 years since she completed both her Diploma in Tropical Medicine & Hygiene and her MSc Clinical Microbiology in 1994.

“I chose to study at LSHTM because of its reputation – then and now – as a world-leading institution. The experience of the lecturers and the quality of the teaching were both excellent.”

She is now Professor of Public Health and Microbiology in the Department of Medicine at the University of Cambridge; Director of the National Infection Service at Public Health England; a Non-Executive Director at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust; and an independent advisor to the Drug Resistant Infection Priority Programme at the Wellcome. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, an elected Member of EMBO, and was awarded a CBE for services to medical microbiology in 2015.

“Having grown up in the UK and never been further than France, it wasn’t until I was doing my postgraduate training at Oxford that I developed an interest in global health issues and I found the whole area of study of tropical medicine fascinating. Studying at LSHTM was wonderful, and doing so has underpinned my career, for example when I went on to work at the Wellcome Unit in Thailand for seven years from 2003. Equally usefully, the Master’s gave me a solid grounding in laboratory microbiology.

What does innovation mean to you?

“For me, innovation is a very broad concept – it means using ‘blue-sky thinking’ to work towards leaps in our understanding of health problems and challenges. And it means doing things differently in order to do things better.

“Innovation is a partner in every aspect of global health problem solving, whether it’s providing clean water or contraception, getting the most out of clinical trials, or looking for ways to improve communications with our collaborators, peers and patients.”

“In my work on pathogen genomics, innovations mean that we can now track the dissemination of pathogens very effectively. Working as genomic detectives, we can use the degree of relatedness between microbial sequences to detect outbreaks and define patterns of pathogen spread at local, national and international levels. Genome sequencing is also increasingly used to predict resistance to antibiotics in pathogens such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

“The use of routine sequencing of pathogens that cause food-borne associated outbreaks is now routine in England and elsewhere and may give the very first indication of an outbreak when affected patients are not in the same time and place. This builds upon 150 years of ‘shoe leather epidemiology’ developed first by John Snow, demonstrating that innovations can be incremental and build over time, one step at a time.”

Do you have any advice for current students?

“My advice to current students and new graduates is simple: don’t be afraid to take risks.  If you stay in your comfort zone, you won’t innovate; and if you don’t innovate, you won’t get the kind of results that will lead to the breakthroughs we’re all seeking. When you get unexpected results, don’t be frightened to follow them up – that’s where breakthroughs could come from.”

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