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Dr. Rod Russell

Professor of Virology and Immunology
Memorial University of Newfoundland
Rod Russell
Rod Russell
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I run a research lab where we study viruses and how they cause disease.

About me

I was born/grew up in: I was born in St. John’s, NL and grew up in Bay Roberts, which is rural Newfoundland. Science also allowed me to live in Montreal and Washington, DC while I trained.

I now live in: I live in Paradise, NL.

I completed my training/education at:  I did my BSc in Biochemistry, followed by an MSc in Medicine, both at Memorial University. Then I did a PhD at McGill University, followed by a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, USA.

What I do at work

My day consists of meeting with my students or colleagues to discuss their research. I also teach in the departments of biochemistry, biology and pharmacy. I teach virology and immunology courses, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. I spend time working on research papers that my students and I will publish in scientific journals. We also write proposals for new research projects. I also review research papers for scientific journals and evaluate research proposals for research funding agencies.

My lab performs virology and immunology research on the hepatitis C virus, as well as influenza. So we grow viruses in cells in culture dishes and figure out how the viruses affect and kill the cells they infect. We are also studying immune responses to COVID-19 vaccines.

We have very cool equipment such as Real-Time PCR. Using this, we can measure the levels of virus infected in the cells we grow in the lab. We can also label proteins with red, green, blue, etc. inside our cells and see where in the cells the viral proteins go. We will soon have a new microscope that will allow us to watch viruses as the infect cells in live, real-time experiments.

We spend a lot of time problem solving through technical optimization. We will try a new procedure, and if it doesn’t work at all or doesn’t work too well, we will play with the conditions to try to get it perfect. It is through our backgrounds in math, biology, chemistry, physics and biochemistry that we are able to optimize and solve technical and theoretical problems. I really enjoy this because research is really a series of puzzles and mysteries that need to be solved. As a child I always liked figuring out how things work, and that is what I get to do every day now!

I work in a team most of the time. My own lab is a team. , We will often collaborate with other labs and teams to develop new systems and do various experiments.

My career path is

In high school I was thinking I’d be a Gym Teacher or a Pharmacist. I in university I got interested in lab-based research. My supervisors told me I was really good at science, and that I should do a PhD and have my own lab someday. I figured if these smart people thought that, then they must be right! So I went for it, and I absolutely love my job now as a researcher/professor.

I had a very strange career twist that helped me. I was working as a security guard in the summer when a training opportunity came up.  I was only eligible because I had been in the work force for 1 year. That training opportunity got me the first lab research experience that gave me the opportunity to do a Master’s degree. This set me on the path I ended up taking.

Once I got into a research lab studying HIV, I realized how interesting viruses are. At that point I knew I wanted to study viruses for the rest of my career. I never expected to be studying a pandemic virus, but here we are!

So many people influenced my decisions. My high school guidance counselor told me I was good at science and that I should aim for that instead of Phys Ed. My undergraduate professors supported my application to graduate school. The professor I worked with for 1 year, Dr. George Carayanniotis here at Memorial, was the one who really saw my ability. It was he who planted the research seed in my brain.

I have encountered failure and barriers at every stage of my training and career. They make you stronger. You don’t give up. You learn to persevere and you will eventually be successful. You just never give up on your dreams.

I am motivated by

Solving the puzzles and mysteries is the best part for me. I love the feeling that we figured something out and can share it with the world. Or when we have answered a scientific question or found a new way to do something that has never been done before. It is a huge feeling of accomplishment.

I also love that I get to work with young, smart women and men from all over the world. Through working with them I learn science with them and I learn about their world.

I also love the social aspect of science. You get to travel to beautiful places for conferences and meet many other people with similar interests and curiosities as you.

These days, because of COVID, I spend a lot of time speaking to the media and the public. It feels really nice to know that I am helping get the right messages out about the vaccines and the virus.

How I affect peoples’ lives

Right now the work we are doing on COVID-19 is helping us figure out how the vaccines are working. It will also help us decide whether or not the vaccines will protect people from SARS-CoV-2 infection both short- and long-term.

Outside of work I

Outside work I like to play hockey and ride my bike with my 2 and 5 year-old daughters. I love to cook, which is kind of like doing science

My advice to others

I would say take time to figure out what types of science and research interest you enjoy most. Your motivation and fulfilment will come from your strong interest at the good times and the bad times when you are struggling to figure something out.

When I was a student, I enjoyed:
  • Foreign Languages
  • Physical Education / Health
  • Science
  • Technology
  • Math
When I was a student, I would have described myself as someone who:
  • Brought people together
  • Enjoyed doing things on my own
  • Liked helping people
  • Organized activities for my friends
  • Played on a sports team
  • Liked being given free range to explore my ideas
  • Liked reading
  • Played video games
  • Always threw the best parties
  • Felt great satisfaction in getting good grades
  • Learned best “by doing”
  • Liked to design or build things
  • Liked to take things apart to see how they worked

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