Professor Sharon Peacock is professor of public health and microbiology at Cambridge University. In March 2020 she set up the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium to map the genetic sequence of the virus as it spread and mutated. Within a year COG-UK was leading the world in identifying mutant COVID strains, and this data was instrumental in helping the development of vaccines and treatments. Sharon was born in Margate and left school at 16 to work in her local corner shop. She moved on to become a dental nurse the following year and after that she trained to be a nurse at the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton. After studying for A levels at evening classes, in 1983 she won a place to study medicine as a mature student at the University of Southampton. After further training and several years researching bacterial diseases in Thailand, she returned to the UK where she led the development of the Cambridge Infectious Diseases Initiative. In 2021 Sharon was awarded the MRC Millennium Medal, the Medical Research Council’s most prestigious prize. DISC ONE: Fast Car - Tracy Chapman DISC TWO: A Boy and a Girl - Voces8 DISC THREE: Time Has Told Me - Nick Drake DISC FOUR: Title: Driving Home for Christmas - Chris Rea DISC FIVE: Take a Bow - Muse DISC SIX: Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11 (from Fauré’s Requiem) Composed by Gabriel Fauré and performed by Choir of St. John's College, conducted by Andrew Nethsingha DISC SEVEN: Symphonie Fantastique by Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, composed by Hector Berlioz, performed by Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and conducted by John Eliot Gardiner DISC EIGHT: The Lark Ascending, composed by Vaughan Williams and performed by Tasmin Little (violin) BBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Sir Andrew Davis BOOK CHOICE: Oxford Textbook of Medicine LUXURY ITEM: A projector and photos CASTAWAY'S FAVOURITE: Time Has Told Me – Nick Drake Presenter Lauren Laverne Producer Paula McGinley
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Previously sounds? Music radio broadcasts, hello, I'm Lorna van, and this is the desert island discs podcast. Every week I ask my guest to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they want to take with them if they were cast away to a desert island and for right. Reasons the me it is shorter than the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening I my cousin. this week- is the scientist Sharon peacock she's professor of public health, in microbiology at cambridge university and is widely claimed as one of the world's leading virus hunters tracking down new.
And dangerous variants doing the covert nineteen pandemic. In the first weeks of the pandemic, she set up kogi kay, consortium of scientists leading the charge to map the genetic sequence of the virus as it spread and mutated, achieve and she's like into assembling in aeroplanes. During take off within a year, Kogi K had gained worldwide recognition of sequencing. Almost half the corona virus genomes mapped around the globe and that data is vital in the development of vaccines and treatments. She didn't take the traditional path to scientific exley,
at sixteen. She left school and was working in her local corner shop. When she answered an advert for job as a dental nurse as she puts it, she moved from teeth to patients becoming a nurse. Then a doctor. All of this took time and determination. She says failure is a feature of everyone's life, but we don't generally talk about it enough. I failed my eleven plus exam. I failed to get into medical school, just try and get back up, learn from it and do things differently. Professor Sharon peacock welcome to desert island discs. Thank you. It's such a pleasure.
to be here. I know that it's only quite recently, the last couple of years that you start talking about your your past and and how you got where you are today. Why did you want to keep your story to yourself before now? I felt slightly awkward about it. I suppose I also think you have to feel comfortable with yourself before you start to talk about where you came from and who you were in your earlier years. You have to develop that confidence. I think to be able to talk about the fact that you, you did work in a corner shop and he did for the eleven plus I've reached that level of confidence. Now, knowing that I'd really struggled to get into university, I wanted actually deep down whether I really merited being at university and whether it was really true that I could replace it. It's almost like a fairy story to me that all of this happened and I succeeded and looking back there is this element of well did that really
did I really deserve that? I sort of got over that, but I think that awkwardness was around. This is quite a remarkable story and yes, I do deserve to be here interesting, so it was almost like. You couldn't believe your luck and he didn't want to question it, but then, eventually, along the way, you know you've done so much work that you realize actually there's this more than just that going on here. Yes, and the interesting thing about luck is what happened to me was: I did me some people that were really influential in my life, but actually lucky. Sausage and practice is not just luck. It's it's her. He had to meet but then actually working hard, Why do we turned to the music? Now your first disk today? What we can yeah, and why have you chosen? It were my first disc is tracy chapman fast car. Now what she says in this is that she wants a ticket to anywhere and I had a feeling. I could be somebody when I was sixteen and I really didn't have a future. At that point, I didn't.
what I was going to do, but what I knew it I felt I had a lot of energy. A lot of passion duty isn't do something I just didn't know what it was at that point. So a ticket to anywhere was my sentiment. Sixteen then I wanted to get to anywhere. Maybe we make a deal, maybe together we can get somewhere tenant places, but starting from zero got nothing to lose. Maybe Wilmington de lima silva do nothing to improve the The then, as now, Tracy chapman and fast come so sharing peacock you're born, and margaret in nineteen, fifty nine you father, Francis worked in construction is a carpenter and your mother Mary, wanted to become a nurse. Well, she partly trained as a nurse, but in those days
If you got married, you had to leave. Your training was without regret for her life talk, but she never talked about it. I suspect it was because she. really wanted to be an assist, get the opportunity. What kind of person was she? She was a quiet woman she didn't say very much, also very carrying and clearly my mom and dad loved each other very much and their faith was up the essential to their lives, they and also their parents would devote pentecostal christians. What were they in the church, my father, my grandfather. They built their own pentecostal church in margate. There was a high platform at the front where they would give their sermons, but underneath that there was a trap door where there was a very
which water tank where people would be baptize have full immersion immersion. Yes, prior to that, my grandfather, baptized people in the sea, but once this building was constructed, they would actually immerse people fully and I've got a photograph of my father being baptized in that tank pump by his father. The faith was very important in everything we didn and thought about signals, hiring the congregation yourself very much so yes, but with the pluses and minuses we had an immediate community, the downside to that was that there was quite a strict code of living and that could be quite constrictive. Actually what we are not supposed to do, where the restrictions well you'd have to dress in a certain way so you'd have to where he wouldn't yet wear trousers. He couldn't go to the cinema, so I went to see DR dolittle with my mum when I was quite young and- and she said, promise me- he won't
anybody who came to see this film, I'm not telling everybody about it, but he said he would occasionally sneaky she would she would she take me to the cinema, which was just marvellous, but it was forbidden fruit. Actually, your next disk cessation number two. What we're gonna hear well disk number two is a boy and a girl which has some watch it. Eight. This song is deep plea, spiritual if you like very moving to me, and it actually helps me to pause, breathe and think and reflect when I was nursing. I specialised in end of life care, and I worked in we're hospices in brighton? It taught me how to live a life. Well, it taught me to go for what you want and it told me not to have any regrets
and this song reminds me of that balance between life, death and the ability to enjoy life the the. Oh the the the
the the a boy and a girl performed by virtues eight and composed by Erika whittaker shown peacock. As we heard you failed. You eleven plus, and you went to a secondary, modern school. We were able to take sides all levels there. as large. Take biology, inhuman biology, but I wasn't allowed to take mass physics, chemistry or modern languages, because it is difficult to know the decision making, but either I considered it was it wasn't the time spent to teach women, or it was the case that people didn't think I was able enough we were being prepared by a system, is looking the rearview mirror, and I feel very strongly that We were a generation of wasted talent, so they went away
couple options at all. He left school at sixteen nineteen. Seventy five, this would have been an you got a job in the local corner shop. Did you enjoy it absolutely loveday? I loved the senate, we have stocking tins and biscuits and things. I love the beauty of stocking shelves, but I was so like the smooth, delicate too. There was a One of these probably highly hazardous, meet slices in the back room, and I was considered to be sensible enough to actually not and use it, but she stooped down every week and wash it so. The nuts seven doing all that putting opaque to get. I really enjoyed that, so I would ask. but but life outside work in school. He was sixteen, then, with money in your pocket. Did you get up to when you weren't working by the time I got to thirteen? I was growing into quite a rebellious girl. You can tell from my school reports might
If it really dropped off my rebellious self, I guess it's still there. That's what gives me my fight, but my belly self was very much channeled towards my friendship group where I was living, so I shifted french from the people. I was at school with at sixteen to a much older crowd of people and at the time I think I was looking for my tribe, and I thought they were quite strong. They looked quite tough in a in retro that probably wasn't very wise choice and I think if it's done with them, it wouldn't have gone anywhere, sensible so so why was it about idea what the the wrong crowd for you? They were definitely the wrong crowd would definitely eat working on the wrong side of law at times, and I sort of turned a blind eye to that and several of the people that I mix with did go to
him for the crimes that they committed, which was absolutely warranted, and- and I think that this is an area I've talked about before- and it's something that makes me feel quite uncomfortable. What I knew was that they were not a good lot to be mixing with and I needed to move on. So how did he move on? How did you extricate yourself from from that friendship group alien? It was a chance meeting with my husband, so we've been together for forty seven years and spirited disco is called cinderella's and it was, situated between where he lived in brighton and where I lived and the embarrassing things from his perspective, is he forgot my name, so he rang me up a few days later and couldn't quite remember what I was called, so he got over that we quickly got over and he he was in many ways my saving grace and he helped me take the first step away from
hometown and I moved in with him. Actually, when I was quite young, sometimes in life, he reached these kind of turning points, don't you and I don't like to think about what would have happened if I hadn't met him, but I did Much of my success is really down to his encouragement. While I think we better have some more music giant what's next, what are we going to hear so? The next track. His time has told me by nick drake, which is for my husband, Peter it says time has taught me you're a rare rare find, and I think I have any appreciated that looking back at everything my husband has done sport? My life, my work, our lives together, our family, and he doesn't know this by the way that whenever I listen to this, I think of him.
Took the trouble to travel. Meek, drake and time is told me social. People you worked in the shop for several months, but then he got a job at a dentist practice, just a few doors further up the road. How did you get on that? I got the chance to train, so I to attack the college in the evenings to study dental nursing and also like really being with people, people, often quite free. And about going to the dentist or some people are actually helping them through. That fear
adding them into the chair, helping them get a treatment in and out the door. I really did like being a gentleness So in ninety seven eight you decided to start trying to be a nurse at the royal sussex county hospital in brighton, but it was a few months later that you realized You wanted something more than that's. What happened. Six Once into my nursing training, I was on a male medical ward, where people had had strokes and heart attacks and so on and it suddenly dawned on me. I wanted to train to be a doctor, but there was a bit of a problem because I didn't have neither right qualifications, and I didn't dare tell anyone, because they would probably love me out of the ward. Nobody work, but did you tell paint yes absolutely, and he believed in me from the outset is interesting, because I told my parents- and I said well, nothing is a really good professional. Why would you want to go and do something more, but pay absolutely is it right? Ok! Well, if you need to have some tea was too
do some study or whatever I will make it fully, and he paid believed in me, but my finds you have the confidence to tell many people. It was just him and, like my family, you had a dream: what gave you the gumption to go after it in the way they did? You think I think that this has been an inner determination. Perhaps it was that rebelliousness coming into doing something productive with energy, and you yes m passion on we're going to let it go see he just kept putting one foot in front of the other did off. He went to night school. Then we got g c s e's in maths, physics and chemistry, but he needed the levels to get into medical school. So how did you manage his studies? While I finish my nursing training and when I'd qualified I specialized in end of life care? There were two hospices in brighton and I worked in them. Nights evenings weekends and I went part time to a technical college.
Louis, which did a levels on a part time basis and say you take an eye level over the course of a year. So it is to do three levels in two years. At the start of the chemistry level, the teacher It we're doing this in a year and there's three parts to this: a level we currently covered. She parts sensibly So you gonna go into an exam without any would of be chemistry, so do fiscal chemistry will do organic chemistry? We're not been achieved when it comes cars, you can't do that in a year, and so I went into the chemistry a level with only two thirds of the knowledge, but that wasn't gonna put me off So you need me what you had to shut it like a bit. Maybe a b c looking be campaigning leah with two thirds of the syllabus. Let's take a break Is it sharon is your fourth choice today? What's next driving home for christmas by chris rear when I went to medical school in Southampton, my husband, I had to live apart, so he was a fine.
that he was a fine and we just got married. He decided to remain as a fireman in brighton, but every weekend I would cry my work in monday to friday and on the weekend I drove back to brighten to see him and say driving for christmas, it wasn't just christmas, it was every weekend and it was the memories of coming back to kind of a lovely flat that we brought together and, then we can with him. Chris can't wait to see those face trial for christmas, Chris. We
driving home for christmas, so Sharon pico after pasteur levels, you start applying to medical schools. Now we know that it took a couple of tries to get in. So this was crunch time. Did you ever think of giving up no over you're right that I try twice to apprise made school, including through clearing, and nobody wanted to offer me a pace. But my husband said to me Why don't you just ring up the universe, tv but spoke to southampton because they ran a mature student programme and ask them why you can't go there and they said well come along and you can make the admissions tutor called David Wilson and that's what I did I totally along and attacked him. What did you say? I told him. I was passionate about doing medicine and I'm still in concert with David. Actually,
She saw something in me that meant he would take a chance on me because he was definitely taking a chance. So a dream come true, it, also a real kind of unknown quantity. How'd. It's been university change your outlook. I was like a sponge us unfilled, could have wings. I was wanting to learn everything and it was at that moment really that I thought this is the start of the next trajectory of my life. See qualified as it is. to which I'm sure was a joy, but there was a a difficult time that followed, because I know that your father died of bowel cancer, not long after you finished your degree. understanding what he was going through professionally help. In those circumstances it helped in I diagnosed his problems. They called me and said: come over to the house and feeling very well, and so I did go overnight,
Look a history and I checked him out, and I knew then that he had a serious problem in his in his bow, and I said you got to go to hospital straight away and in ways. It was good that I was able to say that you have to go to hospital but in other ways is really hard because for all the knowledge I had in my head, I couldn't help him in his moment of need, seeing, in die heat, he died at home actually, and I was present during some of his care. There were. There were tough moments throughout that journey. With my my dead, cause you you have, the understanding of people can sometimes talk to you as if you're, a professional but you're, not your daughter and you're feeling like a daughter. sharon has taken it for some more music. This is your fifth choice today. What are we going to hear next? My next track is take a bow by muse. When I was working in oxford is as a doctor, I got a chance to go to thailand and I were
they're for seven years, and we we traveled extensively cambodia vietnam LAO what we found so doing was actually reflecting back on life in the. U k reflects your life across the world, and the geopolitics take about is about politicians taking responsibility for the choices they made certainly my children, started to wake up to the fact that geopolitics vital for global stability this means and take about sharing peacock
April twenty nineteen. You were interim director of the national infection service for public health, england. The first cases of covert nineteen, came to light later that year. How quickly did you realize that you had a part to play in the response to the virus very quickly? If you know anything about surgeons. You know that they do mutate, so they get mistakes. a genome is like a typo. So every time there is a new, infection in a new person, does an opportunity for one of these titles. Yes, sir incised covey too, mutated, at a rate of around twice a month in its natural cycle of infection, and many those type posing the genome, wouldn't matter. Some of them would actually allow that virus strained to become more transmissible or avoid the immune system and to the point of sequencing, is to actually start catalogue. The genetic changes, the typos that were khumalo
over time. So how did you set up kogi care and what were its aims at first I sit up by realizing. We need to sequence, the virus large scale, so we had all of the component parts in the country. We had the expertise, we had the machines, we had the people who are willing to do it, but we hadn't connected it altogether. So early march, I actually emailed five people to say. Can you just speak to me and I said to them: do you think what I'm planning it sounds sensible to you and they said yes, we behind you and that they invited twenty people into a room in the wellcome trust in and said we're going to develop a blueprint today for how we're going to develop a sequencing capability for the country and that's what we did over the course of a day. We talked about the how the where and the who of sequencing and put it together, I mean just to jump in
developing a blueprint for a response to a pandemic over an epidemic as it might have been at that point. In a day that sounds pretty fast. It was very fast what extraordinary, but we didn't have. As long as a scientist you might spend six months perfecting a perfect application to do a piece of science to get funding. We had a matter of days before the number of cases we're going to start to increase actually by the middle of march, we were already sequencing genomes before even got the funding. On the first of April, there were signed to see you said this is gonna, be a waste of money. Why did they think that an
How did you respond to it? Well, there was a general view that the virus wouldn't be tight fast enough to make a big difference to the way it's behaving and looking at the comments on the internet, it was a case of you going to be sequencing the same virus over and over again just a waste of money. Now that bothered me and I'll last, a few nights sleep, but actually at the end, I decided that if the worst came to the worst, we'd have lots of really nice data that scientists could use. If actually, what I thought was going to happen did happen, then very true start to emerge that had different biological characteristics. They behave differently as they interacted with us and at that point, we'd be ready. So when, when the very emerged at that point. We had the justification we needed, but in the meantime we just had to keep faith in what we are doing. Let's take a moment. Visible means music, your sixth choice. Today. What are we going to hear why you taken into the island with you, my six disc is
I can t digital racine, my youngest trained as a junior chorister, that's ST catherine's college in cambridge and I'd go inter service every week and the pleasure of the emerging myself in the music and actually reflecting combat this idea you need a moment to yourself to reflect, and actually this is one of her favours and that's why I chose him the
the furies contici dijon racine performed? the choir of saint John college, cambridge conducted by andrew net singer sharing peacock in november, twenty twenty coke uk help detect a cluster of cases ink and with a bigger than usual number of genetic changes. Now this eventually became known as the alpha variant and it turned out to be more transmissible what happened. Next, we knew that there was an expansion of cases in parts of london and can that was fast to the moment have predicted, because actually there was kind of locked down at the time and we were in very early stage
We didn't really know what any of these mutations really meant, but at that point early to mid december, There is a suspicion that this variant that we were saying may be associated with great transmits and we had to do the size to prove to show an early this year. You find yourself caught up in the story of my uncle leaked. What's up messages they date back to when he was the health secretary and he actually criticized He personally, in one case, he believed you known about Alfred September, but haven't worn him about its potential to spread until november. He called that a total outrage. How did you feel about the criticism when you read that about yourself? It's always gonna be a shock. However, food is completely unjustified. In september we saw that there were five alpha genomes out of sixteen thousand gino we generated this point, zero, three percent, and there were two.
Hundred other veritable circulating at the same time, by october, alpha was point to eight percent. two hundred variant circling so there's no reason why we would see something as such, low prevalence in october it will bring an alarm bell when it starts to behave differently. So looking at the genome is meaningless. You can only interpret a variance genetic construction if you like, once you see how it's behaving people, so it's present. An early autumn, but it's not until later in the other, really starts to increase so november, was the uptake. have to bear in mind that it took us in those days around two weeks to generate the genome annulled the genome put together with the information about how it came, let that that simple came from and then passed under public holidays. So there is a two week lag and serve to say that we were hiding information was was a tough one because there
these genomes buried in a large number of other genomes. But furthermore, all of our data was released into the public or scientific public domain to anybody could look at the genomes that nothing was project. Wasn't it is to get the information that you could then share with everyone? Yes was the personal cost for you of being caught up in the politics of the pandemic, like that? For me that out? Who was a gift, because I worked in my Where I had huge support at peak ringing me. My house is full of flowers more so than when I was married. It was absolutely extraordinary to think scientists have. collateral damage at times during the pandemic. There are a whole string of highly regarded scientists who have been exceptionally productive during the pandemic, for example in the vaccine programme and
You write things about them. That said, disrespectful inevitably have to say that there is collateral damage that scientists are part of that collateral damage. Do you think it damages public trust in scientists? In what they're saying there can be a risk that this can affect, how people trust scientists, but, at the end of the day, people will make up their own minds many leading scientists have far death threats and I think you have to have had death threats. What what happened it was by Emma than I've had severally mouse indicating that somebody was going to kill me. I won't go into the details, because they're not very pleasantly gives that person air time that they don't deserve, but certainly I did have deference throughout the pandemic. Let's take a minute, visible, music. Your penultimate choice today, if you would once again be my seventh choice, is to find a fantastic by barriers in this piece of meat that she would about reminds me of the virus, the very clear note that it sounds and then that surrounded by frenetic activity of the
and that's what happened during the pandemic as we responded to it. Good was to come out of that, but during that period of time it felt like it was a tough life. The oh yeah,
the users symphony fantastic, performed by orchestra revolutionary, a romantic conducted by sir John elliot gardener Sharon peak.
Kogi K was warmed up earlier this year. How do you look back at its achievements? Well, it was wound up at the end of march, so it still feels quite raw. I am just so proud of everything we achieved. There were six hundred people consortium and every one of them was really valuable in what they contributed to the overall consortium. I've, a deep since pro but also, I know that the legacy will go on to mean that we use sequencing again in a very productive ways are before it was very much research to now. We have to see it as a proactive tool, for example the next pandemic. Looking back at what you ve achieved, What would you say has been your driving force? I dont know why, but
deep rooted in may is a sense of service to the community and that, since of service, will last for the rest of my life, I'm not quite sure where it comes from. Perhaps it's always been there, but that is a guiding principle for me. That I'm on this planet to make a difference, however, small or big, for other people. It was time to cast you away to be any people on the island of afraid just you, but you will have your scientific mind. I wonder whether that you'll be able to put that too good. I on the island. I would never like myself to do it, but, but perhaps I could actually study the nature and look for signals of natural selection. That would be fascinating to start to really map the flora and fauna of the island that love One more track before we cast you away, though: Sharon. What's it going to be bad like twinned with very uplifting peace, the law ascending, and what I like about this is that it really it kind of how's the prospect
peace harmony enjoy, so this piece is really about the countryside, but actually, I think it's a very optimistic and hopeful way of looking to the future. the the The the
the the VON Williams, the lock ascending the BBC symphony orchestra, with violinist tasman little conducted by sir Andrew Davis. so Sharon peacock I'm going to send you away to the island. Now I will give you the books to take with you, the bible, the complete works of shakespeare, and he can take one other. What would you like while it has to be the oxford textbook of medicine? This was a book that I would have read a lot in my my junior doctor years. This is what a four volume tome and I want to read that and rediscover all the things that have been developed in medicine since I qualified the great thing is: if anyone rescues me from this either
and then I'll, be even more qualified to be a doctor. After all, you stand ready at all times and reggie. I can tell lately so when you were growing up it was. It was only the bible and shakespeare that you had in the house of him. I had three books. I had the the bible, which was very well read. I had the complete works of shakespeare, it she has never read and a very old and dusty ancient encyclopedia set I have no idea where they came from, but living my house was like living on. It is ireland, you can also a luxury item, what you fancy well, I have to take my last collections of photos and videos, preferably to convey an immersive experience, because I'd never be alone. When immersive mixture of photos and film, that's what you're looking for then, is it okay, we'll get? You may be projector of some color pretty good, I'm sure we can do that and finally, which one track. If the eight would you rush to save from the waves, if you are too, this is such an easy decision. It has to be tom, has told me by nick drake, because it reminds me of
husband and he's not gonna, be there might have imagined, he's there and that music early. How me to do that, professor sharing people, Thank you very much for letting us your desert island discs. Thank he's been absolute pleasure. Follow me by conversation with children. I have no doubt at all that you put that medical textbook. Through its basis, we castaway many scientists from all specialists, including professor calling Joe professor heinz wolf and professor jean goulding said Jeremy Farrah, who also can, if you should significantly to the fight against covert nineteen is there to you can find these episodes in a desert island discs programme archive the bbc sands, the studio, Did you for today's programme was emma hot. These systems producer was Christine I've loved scheme and the producer was pull mckinley next
I'm. My guest will be this nuclear ronnie, romeo Sullivan, I do hope, you'll join us. Hello. jeremy boeing, the BBC's international editor for nearly forty years. been reporting from some of the most complex and dangerous places in the world. in my new ten part series, frontlines of journalism, I'm taking you to some of the most difficult stories I've had to cover six more around and in or around the graveyard get a? I should actually to look at the obstacles they get in the way of the truth and how journal like me, navigate around them. It is never definitive have, these argue embassies tend to argue every word: comes out of your mouth is a form of opinion. If the world saw the world would react subscribe to frontlines journalism from BBC radio for now on BBC sounds
Transcript generated on 2023-07-01.