Dr. Angela Rasmussen (PhD) is the newest research scientist joining the VIDO team at USask. (Photo: Submitted)

Q&A: Renowned virologist joins USask as VIDO’s newest scientist

From New York to Saskatoon in the middle of a pandemic, the newest member of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) has arrived at the University of Saskatchewan (USask).

Previously a faculty member at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health in New York, Dr. Angela Rasmussen (PhD) brings her expertise in virology to the prairie province as a research scientist.

“VIDO is going to be playing a very important role at the forefront of Canadian research and innovation,” said Rasmussen. “That seems like the kind of place that I can grow with in this phase of my career and also contribute a lot of good in terms of bringing my experience to help build and make USask a world-class place to study pandemics and potential pandemic viruses.” 

The following answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What brings you to VIDO?
A: Before the pandemic I was in New York and my family lived in Seattle, so I was commuting for the last 4.5 years cross-country. That’s not feasible during a pandemic, so I was thinking about other places to work because my family didn’t want to move to New York. When I heard about the opportunity at VIDO – I knew about what VIDO did, and I heard more from the leadership about their vision for the future – it seemed like an exciting place to be.

Q: Have you been to Saskatoon before?
A: I grew up in the Seattle area, so I’ve been to British Columbia a number of times, but I’ve never been to Saskatchewan. I moved here sight unseen, but before I came I talked to a lot of people including my colleagues here. And while they admit they’re biased being Canadian and some from Saskatoon, they assured me that Saskatoon is a great city to live in. So far that’s what I’ve found. I’ve been really, really charmed by Saskatoon.

Q: What are your thoughts on the mid-May snow?
A: Given that it was 30 degrees C one day and then cold and snowy a couple days later, it’s going to get some getting used to. It keeps you on your toes. I think what’s going to take some getting used to is next winter. I bought a lot of thermal underwear, so I think I’m prepared for actual winter.

Q: How did you get into virology?
A: In college I read a book called The Hot Zone, which turns out to be very exaggerated, but reading that book really made me hone and focus my interest on biology, microbiology and studying emerging viruses. When it came time to apply to grad school, I decided to get my PhD in microbiology and I joined a virology lab to do my work in and it’s been viruses, viruses ever since then.

Q: What do you specialize in?
A: I study the interactions between a virus, which is an obligate parasite, and its host. I also study viruses that swap back and forth between human and animal hosts – zoonotic viruses. Basically, I look at how a response to infection by the host dictates how severe your disease is and what the outcome will be. Hopefully I’ll start applying that to looking at the type of protection that vaccines can provide against a given emerging virus.

Q: As a virologist, what were your initial thoughts when COVID-19 started to spread?
A: I remember this very vividly. It was towards the end of February 2020, and I was getting ready to fly back to the Seattle area for my monthly visit to my family, and there was news of a cluster of undetected SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 in the Seattle-area. That was the moment that I was like, “There’s undetected community transmission. This is going to be a really big problem.” From there, I kept thinking that the pandemic preparedness systems and plans that we had in place in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world were going to hold up and that we would be able to get this under control. I never imagined how badly that worked out in the end. Ultimately, that made me more focused on what I can do as a virologist to make sure we never experience a pandemic like this again.

Q: Did you ever think we’d live through a pandemic?
A: We actually have lived through multiple pandemics. I mean, HIV and Hepatitis C are both pandemic viruses – although some would argue that they’re both pandemic and endemic viruses. We’ve actually lived through several influenza pandemics too, in our lifetimes. The most recent one being in 2009. I was surprised, though, that we’re living though a pandemic like this with a completely novel virus.

Q: Do you have any hobbies outside of work?
A: I do like to play video games and I also like to travel. My husband and I try to take one or two big trips abroad every year, and I can’t wait for that to happen again. I also like football a lot. I’m a Seattle Seahawks fan. We actually got married at a Seahawks tailgate party, so I love football. I’m excited to learn more about the CFL, which from what I’ve heard is fairly different from the NFL. I’m excited to go to a Riders game.

Q: If you could choose one food to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
A: Probably pepperoni pizza just because – who doesn’t love pizza? That would be hard because as much as I love pepperoni pizza, I would probably eventually get sick of it. I would be desperate to eat some tacos or some noodles.

Q: If your 10-year-old self could see yourself now, what would she say?
A: I wanted to be a gynecologist because I wanted to help women, so I think I would be pretty excited that I ended up becoming a doctor even though I’m not a physician. I’d be like, “Close enough.” Hopefully 10-year-old me would be excited about the fact that I’m a doctor and I’m doing important work that will contribute meaningfully to global health, which has always been one of my interests and goals.

Q: Any final thoughts to add?
A: Everybody get vaccinated as soon as you can. It’s how sustainably we’re going to end this pandemic and not have to think of COVID-19 anymore.

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