Carolyn Nielsen

Favourite Thing: Coming up with my own ideas and then testing them in the lab… even better when it works!



Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (2010-2012), Durham University (2007-2010), Stratford-upon-Avon Grammar School for Girls (2003-2007), St Leonards (2001-2003), Southbank International School in London (1999-2001)


Master of Science (ScM) in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology; Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Biology; A-Levels Biology, Chemistry, Maths, French

Work History:

Mainly internships so far! Including at the World Health Organisation (Switzerland) and GlaxoSmithKline Vaccines (Belgium)

Current Job:

Immunology PhD student


London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Me and my work

I try to understand how a virus can ‘age’ the cells of your immune system!

I am really interested in our immune system and how we can use vaccines to direct our immune cells to protect people from nasty diseases. There are many different things that can change the way your immune cells respond to vaccines though, which can change how well the vaccines work. Age is a good example of this- elderly people don’t respond as well to vaccines because their immune cells are more mature. There is even a fancy word for it: immunosenescence.

What’s really interesting is that there is a type of virus, called cytomegalovirus, that can cause very similar effects. If you’re infected with cytomegalovirus, then your immune cells can change and act like what you might expect from your grandparents! My work looks at how immune cells in people with cytomegalovirus respond to vaccines, compared to people without cytomegalovirus.

My Typical Day

I go back-and-forth between doing experiments in the lab, and analysing data and writing reports at my computer in the office

I get into work about 9:30am and make a list of the top three things I want to get done during the day while I drink my coffee. Usually it’s a combination of reading (there is a lot of new research to keep up with!), analysing my own data, and maybe getting into the lab do an experiment. I also am spending a lot of time writing at the moment because I am getting near the end of my PhD so am working on my thesis.. it’s almost 30,000 words so far… Days in the lab are great because they get you away from your desk and moving around- it’s cool to actually do something! I normally leave between 6:30-7:30pm, but it depends if I have an experiment that last a realllly long time or if I have found something interesting and can’t stop! Other people in my lab work completely different hours though, you can usually organise work to suit you best.

What I'd do with the money

Buy materials for really fun hands-on experiments to take into schools

I work at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and there are many enthusiastic ‘STEMNET’ volunteers who go into primary and secondary schools and talk about the kind of research we do and why science is so fun! Some people take in giant stick insects and that is always really popular, so I’d like to buy more materials and equipment for other people to be able to take into schools. It’s much more exciting to hear about science if you get to take part!

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Motivated, adventurous, funny

Who is your favourite singer or band?


What's your favourite food?

Halloumi :)

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Visited the Galapagos Islands and swam with penguins… and sharks!

What did you want to be after you left school?

An ecologist to protect the environment

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Not really, although they introduced a special rule about shoes at my secondary school because I used to walk around barefoot…

What was your favourite subject at school?


What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I got to visit research sites in rural Burkina Faso (West Africa) to see how they run malaria vaccine clinical trials

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?


If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?


If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

To discover something that helps improve health worldwide, to (properly) learn French, and to stay in a job that lets me travel

Tell us a joke.

Did you hear the joke about the cloud? … Never mind, it’s over your head.

Other stuff

Work photos:

All my work relies on nice people giving blood donations. I then separate the blood into red blood cells, white blood cells, and the plasma. This is what it looks like at the start of that process- you can see the red blood cells falling to the bottom.



I then have to spin the blood really fast in a machine called a centrifuge- that makes the blood separate out properly depending on how heavy each section is… the centrifuge is expensive but very useful- almost all labs need these. We have a few bigs ones like this and a lot of smaller ones too. When I separate out the blood this centrifuge spins the tubes at 1800 turns per minute, and that’s not even the top speed!



It’s important to be able to store the white blood cells for future experiments. We use liquid nitrogen which is -196°C. All the metal towers that we store samples in inside the liquid nitrogen get really really cold, so we need to wear thick gloves. Metal that cold will burn your skin if you touch it.



I am going to go to the Gambia for February-March 2016 to help do some experiments at a research site in Fajara. The virus I am interested in – cytomegalovirus- that has an affect on the immune system is more common there than it is in the UK, so it’s interesting to compare results between London and Fajara.



After we do all the experiments and all the analysis, it’s important to share your results with other scientists and the public. This is me presenting my results at a meeting in Germany two years ago. My poster is not a good example though- there are far too many words!