‘The reward is seeing how important the process of blood donation is’

Research Lives: Dr Allison Waters, research and development lead facilitator at Irish Blood Transfusion Service

Dr Allison Waters: ‘In the evening there is no commute, you can switch off the computer and you’re home with the family’

Dr Allison Waters: ‘In the evening there is no commute, you can switch off the computer and you’re home with the family’

 

You recently took up your role to develop the research at the Irish Blood Transfusion Service – what were you working on before that?

My background is in viruses. I did a PhD in University College Dublin at the Centre for Research in Infectious Diseases with Prof Billy Hall, looking at how viruses evolve.

Then I moved into the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL) at UCD and I was the national contact point for influenza, reporting on the strains of the virus in Ireland. More recently, I oversaw the PCR tests at the NVRL, and, yes, that included monitoring those tests during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, which was a really busy six months.

What inspired you to work for the IBTS?

As well as my work on viruses, I also have a master’s degree in public health, and IBTS really brings those two areas together as well as other interesting fields such as haematology and blood production.

They were looking for someone to lead on a new research strategy so I applied. It means I no longer work at the bench, now I work on identifying and growing and supporting research projects and collaborations, and I love learning about it all.

What kind of research does the IBTS do?

We published the research and development strategy last April and it goes from research into the donors right through to how best to make and store and transfuse blood products. We look at why people donate and how to safeguard their health and the donated supply and even what we can learn about population health from donors –we just published a study where we were able to see SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in donors even before the first case of Covid-19 was notified in Ireland. We also have tissue and eye banks, so there is associated research there too. We plan to launch a website and materials targeted at health professionals, scientists and researchers and we will have a symposium to look at new directions.

Tell us about some of those new directions. . .

One example is donations for sickle cell anaemia, where the person with the condition is likely to have African ancestry. We want to encourage more people with African ancestry to donate blood so we have stocks available in Ireland and there is a match.

Another example is that decades ago we used to freeze donated platelets so they would keep longer, and we are seeing if we can go back to doing that so that the supply is more protected.

What are the biggest challenges and rewards of your job?

The biggest challenge was getting up to speed with the new job in a pandemic, and that involved constant Zoom calls. The reward is definitely seeing how important the process of blood donation is and how celebrated the donors are in the IBTS. They really are the cornerstone of what we do – without blood donors we don’t have a supply.

Have you donated blood yourself?

Yes! I did that after I started here. I got to see first-hand how it all works, and it also meant I didn’t have two small kids jumping on me for a little while. I had my snack and my soft drink and I enjoyed the peace and quiet.

Apart from Zoom calls, how has life changed during the pandemic?

Working from home has its upsides. Before all this it would have been a rush every morning to get the kids out to creche or school early, and now it’s lovely to be able to walk them there. Then in the evening there is no commute, you can switch off the computer and you’re home with the family.