Meet Professor Sharon Lewin, infectious diseases expert and Director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity. Here she talks about her career journey, leadership roles, HIV latency, and the importance of enjoying the journey along the way
What is your current role and how did you get to be there?
I am an infectious diseases physician and virologist. I studied medicine at Monash University and then spent 7 years specialising in infectious disease through a mix of exams, working in different hospitals and practical training. In Australia, that means you are officially a Fellow of the Royal Australian College of Physicians. After completing my clinical training, I then did a PhD in virology, also at Monash University but based at the Burnet Institute. It was the early 90s and my PhD was focused on HIV and how it replicated in the lungs.
At the time there were no effective treatments for HIV, meaning it was a universal death sentence, often killing people at the prime of their lives. In the mid 90s, I moved to New York to complete further training in HIV research, called a post-doctoral fellowship. I worked at the Rockefeller University (home to the largest number of Nobel Prize winners in Physiology and Medicine in the world) and was based at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Centre.
I worked for David Ho, who was Time Man of the Year in 1995 for the discovery of effective antiviral treatments for HIV. Antivirals for HIV transformed HIV from a death sentence to people leading normal lives. It was revolutionary. We initially thought that antivirals could cure HIV, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Treatment is highly effective but is needed lifelong because HIV can establish a latent or silent form. While in New York, I became fascinated with HIV latency and how we could cure HIV. I have spent my career working on that question!
After returning from New York to Australia, I set up my own laboratory and continued to see patients as an infectious diseases physician. In 2003, I took on my first major leadership role as Professor/Director of the Department of Infectious Diseases at the Alfred Hospital. This was a very stimulating and exciting position leading a large clinical department and also building up capacity in research. I am passionate about the role clinician-scientists can play in medicine and more broadly research. After 12 years in that role, the opportunity to lead a brand new institute appeared and I took the leap and became the inaugural director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, a joint venture of the University of Melbourne and Royal Melbourne Hospital. It was quite a difficult transition for me as it was a new institute with a very diverse group of staff and we were building a new entity together. I was reasonably pleased with how the vision was progressing, but then COVID hit, and given the major role the Doherty played in our response, things really took off. I couldn’t be more pleased now that I made the move and how brilliantly our staff from the Institute have performed over the last 20 months.
How does your work contribute to the field and/or the overall health and wellbeing of the community?
I have played a major leadership role globally in the field of HIV cure. My lab was one of the first to work out how to study HIV latency in a test tube model and many groups around the world use these models to understand HIV latency and design new drugs to eliminate latency. My team also ran some of the very first studies to eliminate HIV latency. They were slightly controversial at the time as many of my colleagues thought that people who were living with HIV were doing fine on treatment, so why rock the boat. However, many people living with HIV really want a cure, and we need a cure to see the end of HIV. So pushing the envelope of our knowledge and to know what works and what doesn’t is really important. Safety is of course paramount, but without carefully designed clinical trials, the field wont progress. I have been a passionate advocate of working closely with the community too to ensure we are working in partnership on these challenges.
What project would you love to get off the ground, or skill would you develop, if you had the opportunity?
From a personal point of view, I would love to build a holiday house in the country. I keep collecting ideas of what it will look like. I just need the time to find a place and get started! I am also very keen to understand the world of bioinformatics better. It’s become a huge part of medical research and it’s a black box for me. Hopefully, on my next sabbatical I can throw myself into this world for a few months and learn some new skills to keep up with my students!
What are your loves outside of work?
I am passionate about food and travel. I love to cook and entertain friends and family. I am also always on the hunt for a new restaurant or new exotic place to travel to. I have greatly missed both during COVID-19!
What is one piece of advice you could pass onto others following their own career in the health and medical research sector?
I think it’s really important to enjoy the journey – whatever you are doing. You will have different phases of your career and all will be important. This is particularly important for women who might choose to take time off or work part-time while raising a family. This is such an important thing to do. It’s OK for your career to move a little slower at different times. You will get there in the end! It’s important to never lose sight of what’s really important in life – and that always comes back to family and friends. I also advise to always be kind to your colleagues and keep in mind that all professional relationships are important and should be valued. The medical research world is small. You never want to burn any bridges!