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Professor Ruth Bishop — A passionate mind, saving the lives of children

Professor Ruth Bishop led the team that discovered Rotavirus in 1973 and it has been the focus of her career as a researcher for almost four decades.
The discovery arose from her interest in the microbial flora of the small intestine in health and disease. She counts herself ‘lucky’, as a new graduate, to have been able to join Dr.Charlotte Anderson as a research assistant in the Clinical Research Unit of the Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) in Melbourne. Looking back, she says, this set her on the path for her career. Rotavirus first presented itself to her as a medical mystery in 1971. Worldwide, no cause could be identified in many of the small babies and infants admitted to hospital with acute gastroenteritis. At the time, no one knew for sure what was making these children so sick.

Professor Bishop collaborated with clinicians at RCH, Dr Rudge Townley, who brought in a new technique to intubate children, Dr Graeme Barnes, Dr Geoff Davidson. She also worked with microbiologists at the University of Melbourne Department of Microbiology, Dr Ian Holmes and Brian Ruck. She was able to obtain specimens for examination by electronmicroscopy, from children with severe diarrhoea. Professor Bishop describes the first image of Rotavirus budding from the cytoplasm of a cell as “the most beautiful picture I’ll ever see!”

It soon became clear that this virus was responsible for 70-80% of infections in young children with severe gastroenteritis admitted to RCH and hospitals in developed countries worldwide, and that it was a major cause of death of infants in developing countries. Since the discovery of rotavirus, Professor Bishop has contributed to rotavirus vaccine development at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, led by Professor Julie Bines. Professor Bishop was recently honoured for her discovery and subsequent work on rotavirus vaccine development, receiving Thailand's Prince Mahidol Award 2011, in the field of public health.

Her work has been all-absorbing for her. Passion for her research has been a clear driver of her career and success. At the “Passionate Minds – Women in Science” symposium, Tuesday July 3 2012, Professor Bishop revealed some of the opportunities and challenges she has faced as a female scientist and mother to succeed in her career as a scientist.

Initially she benefitted from part-time funding as a researcher at the Royal Children’s Hospital, which allowed her time to be with her family. However, although her funding was part-time, the reality was somewhat different. She recalls using the hours at home between 10 pm and 1 am to do all her reading and writing.

As a microbiologist, Ruth Bishop had to ‘earn her stripes’ as a virologist. “It was a hard, hard slog,” she recalls. She had to learn many new techniques, introduced during the past decades. She has travelled widely and established collaborative studies, particularly in developing countries. In 1973, when asked by a journalist when the discovery of rotavirus would lead to successful development of a vaccine, she optimistically replied “five years”. But it took 40 years, and contributions from many laboratories and companies for a safe effective vaccine to become available.

In terms of her career, Ruth Bishop says she’s had “much luck, but it’s been hard, hard, work.”

Professor Ruth Bishop spoke at the Passionate Minds - Women in Medical Research symposium on Tuesday 3 July, 2012.

By Florienne Loder, Science Writer, MDHS Faculty Research Unit
 

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