It’s the crossover event you didn’t know you needed: an interview with an mRNA vaccine scientist who is also a furry. Chise has developed a following on Twitter for posting very informative threads about vaccine development and the subsequent rollouts. We got in touch with her to find out more.
Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us! Can you tell me a bit about your work, your area(s) or expertise and how long you’ve been doing it for?
It is my pleasure! I’m a molecular biologist — I have been in the field for over 10 years now. My research focuses on uncovering mechanisms of viral pathogenesis (the ways diseases work) and host immunity. The majority of my expertise stems from aspects of molecular biology, immunology, and virology. My lab’s focus is to better understand basic aspects of viral pathogenesis and apply that knowledge toward the development of safer and more effective vaccines and therapeutics. Currently, my research efforts have been dedicated to SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19). Outside of the current pandemic, my research efforts have been dedicated to studying MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV, zika, ebola, dengue virus, HIV, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza, and other emerging pathogens. My expertise is specifically in mRNA therapeutics and vaccines, however, I am knowledgeable in other vaccine platform technologies as well.
Can you tell me a bit more about mRNA vaccines and how they work?
Absolutely I can! It is actually one of my favorite things to discuss. The science behind mRNA vaccines is actually quite fascinating. mRNA essentially serves as a set of instructions if you will. These instructions direct the cells in our bodies to make proteins to prevent or fight disease.
To explain, mRNA vaccines are made by artificially creating an mRNA (messenger) sequence in our labs that instruct our cells to put together the corresponding amino acids in the right order to re-create a protein pertaining to the pathogen of choice. RNA vaccines use a different approach that takes advantage of the processes that cells use to make proteins: they use DNA as the template to make messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules which are then translated to build proteins. An RNA vaccine, therefore, consists of an mRNA strand that codes for a disease-specific antigen. Once the mRNA strand in the vaccine is inside our body’s cells, the cells utilize this genetic information encoded by the mRNA strand to produce the antigen. The antigen is then displayed on the surface of our cells, where our immune systems can readily recognize it.
So, let’s talk in terms of SARS-CoV-2. The coronavirus’ spike (S) protein plays a key role in the receptor recognition and cell membrane fusion process and therefore a crucial role in penetrating host cells and initiating infection, which is why this is the protein of choice the mRNA strand in our coronavirus vaccines encode for. This is essentially what we need to be able to fight off without risking infection.
Our immune systems then utilize this mRNA strand that encodes for the coronavirus’ spike protein and actually learn how to fight this protein naturally. Fascinating, right?
Messenger RNA (mRNA), who is an absolute superhero, is a single-stranded RNA molecule that is complementary to one of the DNA strands (that make us all that we are) of a gene. The mRNA is an RNA version of the gene that leaves the cell nucleus and moves to the cytoplasm where proteins are made. During protein synthesis, an organelle called a ribosome moves along the mRNA, reads its base sequence, and uses the genetic code within the strand to translate each three-base triplets, or codon, into its corresponding amino acid. In short, this molecule contains the genetic instructions necessary for making proteins inside cells.
We are essentially tricking our own cells into producing the coronavirus’ spike protein by utilizing this artificially created mRNA strand. This is why you are not put at risk of contracting COVID-19. It’s simply just an mRNA sequence — something our cells are already capable of doing naturally on their own! From then on, our body’s natural immune response kicks into high gear. Our T-cells locate this new foreign protein our own cells have introduced (again being the spike protein produced via the artificial mRNA sequence contained in the vaccine) and begin to fight and defend us and instruct our B-cells to make antibodies to neutralize the virus. This is what allows us to establish immunity. Our body learns to fight off these foreign pathogens naturally.
I’m really glad to be talking to you now at this point in the pandemic because, as a layperson, it feels like a very different time from where we were several months ago. We have vaccines now, but we have variants emerging too. How hopeful do you feel about the ability of the former to deal with the latter?
I’m really glad to hear you say that. I started out doing Twitter threads about coronavirus and the vaccines really just to help people understand and not be left in the dark so to speak. Scientific journals are not really meant for the layperson (I spent years in school and the early stages of my career perfecting my understanding of them). I thought breaking studies down so that others could understand too would be helpful. I also broke down not only our mRNA vaccines but the technology and mechanisms of the other vaccine platforms as well to keep people informed. We have come a long way since I started this last February.
I wholeheartedly believe in the ability of these vaccines to be able to combat this virus along with the emerging variants as well. mRNA technology is super beneficial in the sense that we can easily make adjustments to the current vaccines (our new variant-specific booster for example took us a month to modify for Phase One trials) in order to stay ahead of the curve on this virus. Currently, we are in a much better position than we were this time last year. The future is looking much brighter and I am confident with our progress and abilities.
From our research, it seems that information about advanced biotech is quite often prone to being decontextualized by people who either don’t understand it or are invested in trying to turn it into scare stories about microchips and supervillains. Do you think it’s possible to deal with that problem or is it just always an inherent risk with cutting-edge medical technologies?
While I can understand that some may chalk it up to the fact that we will always have an inherent risk with cutting edge medical technologies, and that you are always going to have a group of people that will look for every open opportunity to dismantle the developments of the biotech world, I also feel there is a way to deal with that issue and it is what I have essentially taken upon myself to do every day when I go online and that is: communication.
I cannot begin to tell you how much of a difference it makes to go and talk to people, to answer their questions, their concerns, quell their anxieties and their hesitancies.
I cannot begin to tell you how much of a difference it makes to go and talk to people, to answer their questions, their concerns, quell their anxieties and their hesitancies. When I first started out, I would see people being wary of the new technology and these vaccines in general. The more I continued on, the more I explained and the more the information spread the more I began to see people were really grasping the importance and the science behind them. All of a sudden, I saw hope, progress, and encouragement, and some people were just downright excited to get vaccinated. I will admit there have been a couple of times I have shed some tears when I see some responses because it's like a feeling of relief washes over you knowing you made that breakthrough, you helped someone feel more at ease, you helped them understand. It's a chain reaction. You help them and give them information and then they pass it along to the next person. The more understanding people have the less fear and hesitancy sticks around. It's all about communication.
OK, let’s talk about furries. How did you come to be involved with the fandom? What’s your fursona?
Love it! So, I joined the fandom in 2015. I was a little late to the game I feel. I have actually been a fan of anthropomorphic animals since I was a kid. I grew up watching a lot of Disney movies and cartoons but I wasn’t aware there was an entire fandom that centered on it until I was an adult. I never knew what I was missing but an old colleague of mine introduced me to it years ago and I have been in it ever since. It is a part of me that I can’t ever imagine not being a part of. It is an extremely diverse community full of amazing, talented people. I have several characters that I get the art of, however, my main, or my fursona is Chise! She is a Pine Marten and is me in every sense of the word. I place a lot of my personality in her and portray that in the art I commission. As you can see, Chise is usually in a lab coat holding a couple of test tubes. If Chise were a cartoon character teaching science to her viewers, you would best believe I’d be her voice actor. She’s just “me.”
Do you see your furry lifestyle as an escape from your work, or do you think they’re related? I guess what I’m asking here is: is being a furry biohacking?
Once upon a time, I might have seen my furry lifestyle as an escape from my work. Time off from work would consist of going to a weekend convention to get away from the “real-world” so to speak and then M-F I would go back to normal life until the next convention came around, never intertwining the two. However, now more than ever, the two have become related in every sense of the word for me. I have used my fandom identity and my platform to be able to reach out to those not only inside the fandom, but those outside of the fandom as well and help people understand the science of these vaccines and viruses in general in a calm, helpful and comforting way. If anything, it is a win-win for me. I get to combine two of my biggest passions together and help make the world a better place. I can literally use my fursona to educate and help people. How can it get better than that?
One thing we’ve seen a lot in our research is misinformation campaigns that specifically target internet subcultures, have you noticed any misinformation trends within the furry community?
Absolutely. I think a lot of people outside of the furry fandom take one look at us and assume we are “weird,” “cringy,” “lazy,” and jobless people who live in our parents’ basement and have no aspirations in life when this actually couldn’t be further from the truth.
There are so many amazing, talented, hard-working people in this community. I know scientists, doctors, engineers, students, artists, lawyers, professors, animators, voice actors, developers, you name it. The fact of the matter is, we are normal people just like anyone else. We have lives and dreams outside of the fandom. I think if more people realized this, we could shine a brighter light on the wonders of the fandom and the people within it.
What do you think people most misunderstand about vaccines? And which do people misunderstand more: furry culture or mRNA vaccines?
Concerning vaccines, I think most people misunderstand how they work. A lot of people assume they’re harmful or they contain live viruses or microchips or whatever have you (I feel like I have heard just about everything at this point). The fact of the matter is that these assumptions simply aren’t true. These are some of the most efficient, safest vaccines we have ever had in all honesty and they’re nothing short of a miracle — the miracle of science that is. I think furry culture and mRNA vaccines are both misunderstood on similar levels!
Is there anything the science and furry communities can learn from each other?
Yes! When it comes to the unknown, communication and understanding are key.
Image credit: Phenol.