Viruses, vaccines and advocacy

Science talks - Dr. Robert Jackson
As COVID-19 vaccines begin to disseminate across the globe, Dr. Robert Jackson discusses virus research and communicating with the public.
Dr. Brittany Uhlorn, BIO5 Institute


The emergence of a novel vaccine can be both a scientific triumph and point of uncertainty for the general population. Dr. Robert Jackson, a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Koenraad Van Doorslaer, discusses his research on human papillomavirus - the most common sexually transmitted virus and cause of 5% of all cancers worldwide. Dr. Jackson, a recipient of the BIO5 and Canadian NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowships, also talks about his passion for communicating the scientific method, or process, to the public, specifically as it relates to sharing the utilities of both the HPV and COVID-19 vaccines. 

You’re originally from Canada – did the weather bring you to Tucson?

I was fortunate enough when I was looking for a postdoctoral position to be invited to give a talk by Dr. Koenraad Van Doorslaer, and the weather was amazing. It was November when I visited, and at home it was a blizzard. Coming down here, it was like being on vacation, so that skewed my decision.

How has COVID-19 affected your research?

The first concern was making sure that we're following the guidelines properly - making sure that we're doing everything we can to protect each other, protect ourselves, and protect our families and friends. 

Regarding research, my training is in biotechnology and applying technological advancements to understanding biological problems - and a pandemic is a big biological problem. We quickly were thinking of ways that we could contribute to understanding more about the COVID-19 pandemic and how we could apply our virological techniques, skills and training to understanding SARS-CoV-2. 

Before you were working on COVID-19, you were working on human papillomavirus. Tell us about your research on HPV. 

HPV is a fascinating virus. It's so small, that it's genome (genetic material), which is basically a recipe guide, is extremely small. HPV’s genome is 8,000 base pairs in comparison to our own genomes, which are 6 million. I think it's amazing that a virus with such small ability to code these recipes can have such significant effects on human biology and in some cases leading to cancers. 

Not all HPVs cause cancer. There are hundreds of types of HPVs causing warts and cancers in some cases, but most of the time, you probably won't even know you have an HPV infection. It's going to get cleared by your immune system, but it's the ones that can cause cancer that can persist or stay in your cells for a long period of time causing these abnormal changes that have really fascinated me. 

I've been studying HPVs for over a decade now, starting originally in Canada. I focused on HPV16, which causes the majority of cervical cancers as well as a growing number of oral cancers.

I remember being in high school and initially learning about HPV vaccines. Can you talk a bit about HPV vaccines?

It's tricky because anytime you talk about a sexually transmitted pathogen, such as HPV, there is a lot of stigma that goes along with that. It's not good news to receive if you have an HPV positive test, for example, or if you learned that you have HPV positive abnormal cells and a precancer, for example. There's a lot of additional burden that goes along with understanding and learning that.

The HPV vaccine covers several of the high-risk HPV types. It’s important for everyone to get vaccinated – men and women. This is something that's a problem for all of us. If everyone were to get this vaccine, we could effectively eradicate cancers caused by these HPVs. We have these amazing tools at our disposal for over a decade.

Thinking about vaccine hesitancy, especially with the current day, we're in a state where we  can easily see the effects of the pandemic. These consequences are a lot more immediate than with cancers that take years or decades to occur, but we still have that hesitancy. That worries me from a technological side. It amazes me that we have these tools that humanity has come together to advance these technologies to solve these problems, but the social aspect is incredibly challenging. We need to figure out how to communicate the efficacy and the safety of these tools to help decrease the burden.

As scientists, we have to communicate with the public. Often when I give talks, I'm really fascinated on my particular topic. I'm fascinated on the techniques, the discovery of some new biology, for example, or applying interesting techniques to understanding biology, but it is worthwhile having a “Let’s get down to earth moment and talk about the big picture” discussion. I try to put that into my talks, but I think in this conversation, I'll try harder.

Sometimes people think scientists know everything. We know what we don't know, or at least we try to define what we don't know. That's fundamental to the scientific process of methodically understanding something - defining a problem, defining the knowns and the unknowns. I think that's where some degree of skepticism is healthy. That's how we do science, but it also must be met with trusting the rigor and reproducibility of our techniques. We have a method for understanding or discerning what's real, or what's likely not to be real or what works and what likely doesn't work. It’s tough to just to share how important that process is.

It's important that we include everybody in that conversation. I always think back to my own family. I try to keep up with them on a weekly basis, and I get presented with lots of questions. It's challenging, especially when you study viruses for a living - it's hard not to get emotional about it. 

You recently received a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship from Canada. What does that mean for you as an international postdoc fellow?

I was fortunate enough to do my undergraduate as well as my graduate training in my hometown of Thunder Bay in Ontario at the top of Lake Superior. I caught the bug of doing HPV associated research with my PhD mentor at Lakehead University. Coming here to Tucson to continue studying HPV and understanding its natural life cycle in tissues has been great.

Getting that recognition from the Canadian government to continue that work means a lot to me as a Canadian living abroad. 

You are also the recipient of one of our BIO5 Postdoctoral Fellowships. How are you applying both awards to further your research?

The BIO5 fellowship is really a testament to the expertise available in the broader University of Arizona community. There are other HPV researchers at UArizona, like Dr. Samuel Campos. We share lab meetings with his group. It's really nice community being able to talk to and collaborate with other people who do HPV research but are approaching it from different ways.

My BIO5 post-doctoral fellowship is in collaboration with Dr. Melissa Herbst-Kralovetz at the Phoenix campus. One of the things that my research entails is growing 3D tissues that mimic the tissues HPV infects, and they allow us to study HPV throughout its entire lifecycle. You can't do this in a normal Petri dish. You really need three dimensions of tissue for the virus to undergo its natural life cycle. Dr. Herbst-Kralovetz has a bioreactor, which is like a spinning system. Inside you have little tissue aggregates - little clusters of tissue that can grow and become 3D over time. I'm testing that technique and comparing it to our current technique to see if it helps us get more 3D cultures in the lab.

Collaboration really seems key to your work, and collaboration is at the heart of BIO5. Tell us a bit about what working at BIO5 has meant to you. 

I'm just very grateful for BIO5. The thing about science is that the further you get, it's a lot of failure and a lot of rejection. That’s the price you pay as an academic. Getting recognitions, like the postdoc award, means a lot, but it’s also in part due to the people around me. At BIO5, I am surrounded by excellent collaborators with really cool projects. In my lab bay there are engineers at my back, and overhearing them talk about their projects gives me ideas. I wonder how we can collaborate. 

In terms of the collaboration, having other experts and virologists available provides this amazing group mentorship. Dr. Michael Johnson who initiated the BIO5 fellowship as given so many talks and workshops, so he's really setting us up for success. Dr. Felicia Goodrum teaches me a lot about science communication. It’s just really inspiring to be surrounded by such great people.