Virologist Dr. Suzie Stephenson on staying true to yourself in your science career

Aug 17, 2022

by Suzie Stephensen

For #SummerOfScience, AWIS is highlighting members and partners to show the impact different fields of science have on society – and how these fields are impacted by women.

Introduce yourself and your work.

My name is Suzie Stephenson, and I am a virologist with a PhD in microbiology and immunology from Georgetown University. I’m currently working on the replication of Hepatitis delta virus (HDV) at the National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD. I love researching viruses generally, but HDV specifically, because I find them to be fascinating puzzles that I want to solve – how do they manage to be so small and still co-opt the host processes and cause so much damage in doing so? I also love doing my research at the NIH, because I find the environment very cooperative and there’s so many resources available to do the research that needs to be done to solve these viral puzzles for the benefit of society, as well as resources for professional and personal development.

How does your work benefit people and society in general?

I research the replication of Hepatitis delta virus (HDV), a unique human virus that co-infects with Hepatitis B virus (HBV) to cause increased incidence of liver cirrhosis and cancer. There are over 257 million people chronically infected with HBV, and HDV infects approximately 5% of those people. There is currently no licensed cure for HDV infection, which has been difficult to develop due to the unique attributes of the virus – that’s where my research comes in.

What barriers did you have to overcome to get where you are now?

I didn’t always imagine myself here, though. Over six years ago, I was struggling through the first semester of veterinary school, deciding whether I would keep trying to push through, despite not enjoying myself and the effects it was having on my mental and physical health, or drop out of vet school into an unknown future. I realized then that if you don’t have a passion for what you’re doing, it’s going to be very difficult, and even if the decision to change paths is terrifying, if you’re truly unhappy with what you’re currently doing, it’s the best thing to do. I decided to take the plunge and quit vet school to pursue a Masters, and then PhD, in microbiology and immunology.

How has COVID impacted you and your career?

During my thesis research the university shut down due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Unable to go into the lab to work, I reached out to the DC Public Health Lab and offered my services for SARS-CoV-2 testing. SARS-CoV-2 tests use PCR, a process I could do easily after years of working with an RNA virus. By day, I worked at the Public Health Lab testing samples or overseeing drive-through testing; by night, I continued analyzing what data I had for my thesis work and researching new lab methods I could apply to my work when the university reopened. After 6 months, I returned to my lab with new insight into my thesis, and with a new appreciation for how my skills could help others.

What advice would you give to those looking to pursue a career in science?

Overall, I recommend doing something about which you are truly passionate, especially when it comes to science. Science can be hard, with the ups and downs of experimentation, and sometimes your passion and curiosity are the only things keeping you going. I also recommend trying new opportunities, whether it’s instead of your current path, or a little side-trek when your path is blocked. Finally, I believe you should do all of this while staying true to yourself.