Lijuan Yuan gains rotavirus research experience during sabbatical in Australia

Drs. Clarke, Coulson, and Yuan in the lab
Lijuan Yuan works in Barbara Coulson’s rotavirus pathogenesis and immunity laboratory at the University of Melbourne.

An enteric virus researcher for over 23 years, Lijuan Yuan, associate professor of virology and immunology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, was thrilled to spend a six-month sabbatical at the University of Melbourne in Australia, working with Barbara Coulson in her prestigious rotavirus pathogenesis and immunity laboratory. “The discoveries in Barbara Coulson’s laboratory contribute greatly to the understanding of rotavirus-host interactions, innate immunity, and the development of rotavirus vaccines,” explained Yuan.

As both a Ph.D. student and post-doctoral scientist, Coulson worked with the co-discoverers of rotavirus in humans, Ian Hamilton Holmes of the University of Melbourne and Ruth Bishop of the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. Today, Coulson continues to work on rotavirus innate immunity, pathogenesis and receptor usage. Though she also studies rotavirus, Yuan focuses more on adaptive immunity and vaccine development. “So this was very good for me to go there and be a part of her research team and to learn something different from the focus of my research” said Yuan.

Coulson’s laboratory is located in the Peter Doherty Institute of Infection and Immunity, whose namesake is the Nobel laureate who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his studies on discoveries concerning the specificity of the cell mediated immune defense. Doherty, who still works at the Institute, remains the only veterinary-trained recipient of a Nobel Prize.

On her first day on the campus, Coulson took Yuan to have lunch at University House, the staff club. While eating lunch, Yuan noticed a familiar looking person a table away, but couldn’t figure out who he was. When Coulson explained that it was Doherty himself, Yuan was amazed. She later brought a copy of his latest book, “The Knowledge Wars,” to his office to sign. “He is a very nice person [and] very accessible,” Yuan said. Her students in her laboratory here are now reading his books as well.

Drs. Clarke, Coulson, and Yuan in the lab
Dean Cyril Clarke, in Melbourne for an international meeting, met Lijuan Yuan and Barbara Coulson to take a tour of the Doherty Institute and thank Coulson for hosting Yuan.

Before she could even gain access to the laboratories in the Doherty building, Yuan had to complete a long list of training requirements. Though she had 31 days to complete all of them, Yuan took only five. Coulson joked that she made record speed and should have received an award for her efforts, Yuan said. “I just wanted to finish training quickly so I could start working,” she explained. During the next few months in Coulson’s laboratory, Yuan assisted in her research projects. “I was mainly involved in various virus receptor binding blocking assays and helped the two other lab members with their work” explained Yuan.

While she was abroad, Yuan also traveled to Bandung, Indonesia to give two seminars: “Human norovirus and probiotics” to the Microbiology Society of Bandung Branch at the Bandung Institute of Technology and “Rotavirus vaccines and protective immunity” at PT Bio Farma. She also attended the myriad seminars hosted by the University of Melbourne, where she met Ralph A. Tripp, professor in the Department of Infectious Diseases at the University of Georgia, and arranged future collaborative efforts.

In February, Cyril Clarke, dean of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, visited Melbourne for an international meeting. He took time after the meeting to also meet with Yuan and Coulson, taking a tour of the Doherty Institute and thanking Coulson for hosting Yuan.

Yuan also ensured that her four Ph.D. students at Virginia Tech maintained their work schedule by hosting regular Skype meetings to check on their progress and answer any questions. While she was away, two of her Ph.D. students won Outstanding Poster Awards at the 27th Annual Research Symposium in March. The students credit their awards to Yuan’s efforts in reviewing their results and the posters through her many email exchanges with them. As soon as she returned from Australia, she immediately transferred her new knowledge to her students. “I already passed down the protocols and the techniques to my students. For example, we are going to screen antiviral proteins... We will use the same technique I used there,” she explained.

As a hobby nature and travel photographer, Yuan also took time to explore her new surroundings and the culture of Australia.  “Melbourne was a beautiful place to live,” she said. “It’s been voted the best city in which to live in the world five years in a row.” Some other nearby places she visited included Tasmania, Bali, and New Zealand. Her adventure was topped off at the end of her sabbatical by a 11,347 km (7,067 mile), 31-day RV trip through much of Australia with her husband, mother, and two sisters. “The six months was rejuvenating for me both professionally and personally. It was a dream come true,” Yuan said.

Ed Monroe with vet students and guest speaker Kim Carlson
Peter Doherty, Nobel laureate and namesake of the Peter Doherty Institute of Infection and Immunity, met with Yuan during her stay and signed a copy of his book “The Knowledge Wars” for her.