Member Spotlight: Samira Mubareka
A smiling woman with a grey sweater and a smiling man wearing a toque and blue coat

Photo: Kevin van Paassen/Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

August 31, 2022

Samira Mubareka is a clinician scientist at Sunnybrook Research Institute and an infectious diseases physician and medical microbiologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. She is also an associate professor in the laboratory medicine and pathobiology in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. We caught up with Samira to chat about her work, One Health and what she’s currently reading.

Can you describe your research?

The overarching theme of my research is zoonotic viruses and how they transmit between humans and animals. Prior to the pandemic, I was interested in influenza virus and its transmission. Influenza virus can infect different species so we’re looking at the hosts and the physical properties of the virus to understand how it gets from one host to the other. Our work involves both an experimental approach to study transmission and both animal and environmental sampling. We’re always thinking about pandemic preparedness and where the next pandemic is going to come from. During the COVID-19 pandemic, our research transitioned to SARS-CoV-2 but we used very similar approaches to study it. A big part of the work we’re doing in the high containment lab right now is characterizing and comparing the different SARS-CoV-2 variants, and looking at SARS-CoV-2 spillover back into animals. We are part of a multidisciplinary collaboration that identified the first cases of SARS-CoV-2 in Canadian wildlife. We’re now focused on characterizing a highly divergent SARS-CoV-2 variant that appears to be adapting in free-ranging deer. 

How did you become interested in infectious diseases?

There were two things that drew me to this field. First, as a medical student at Dalhousie University, I met some really great infectious diseases physicians who were excellent role models and mentors. Second, I found infectious diseases compelling because you’re not restricted to any particular organ system or patient population. The field is also very connected at the global level. What happens on the other side of the world matters because it’s important to know where novel pathogens are emerging. At a more molecular level, viruses are so itty bitty with these tiny genomes, and yet they can have such a massive impact on populations around the world. Being able to look at everything that’s happening globally down to what’s happening in the cell is fascinating. Once you start looking into it, you almost can’t look away.

What excites you the most about EPIC?

There’s really been a genuine groundswell of effort and focus on galvanizing a community around infectious diseases. You can have people working on infectious diseases across so many different departments, especially at such a large institution like University of Toronto, that it can be hard to get everyone together to meet each other and share ideas. I’m based at Sunnybrook so it’s harder for me to meet all the other researchers. I think EPIC can help facilitate those connections in a much broader and more sustainable way. As EPIC brings people together, you start to realize what a large community we are and how we can tackle some important challenges around emerging infectious diseases by working together.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your work when it comes to infectious diseases?

The most important technical challenge right now are the rules that limit are our ability to work with influenza viruses, particularly highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). Like SARS-CoV-2, HPAI is a risk group 3 pathogen but because of the regulatory requirements, we can’t work with it. With such an unprecedented and sustained level of HPAI activity across the country, we really need to be working on these viruses to better understand their pandemic risk.

From a broader conceptual perspective, one of the challenges has really been shifting the paradigm around how we think about health. We still put a disproportionate amount of emphasis on human health and fail to recognize how closely connected we are to other animals and ecosystems. You really don’t have to look any further than both SARS coronaviruses, Ebola, Marburg, monkeypox, HPAI, the list goes on and on. Climate change, biodiversity, conservation and health – they’re all interconnected. Healthy ecosystems and healthy animals equate to healthy humans. But we don’t think of things from a One Health perspective and it is imperative we start using this approach if we really want to mitigate the emergence and impact of zoonotic pathogens.

Are you involved in any other initiatives or projects right now that you’re really excited about?

We just put out a One Health policy briefing on behalf of the Royal Society of Canada which tries to reframe how we think about health. There’ve been a number of other initiatives that have spun out from that. Even though I love science, doing research and looking after patients, it’s nice to be involved on the policy side too and see how our research can inform policies.

What advice would you give to young people who are interested in this area of research?

Explore different paths because there are many roads that can lead to the same destination. At the same time, be open to changing that destination because interests, opportunities and priorities can change. Don’t be afraid to take risks and think outside the box. I would also encourage them to be prepared for failure because that’s inevitable. It’s more about how you dust yourself off and try again. And finally, it’s okay to try things and rule them out. Especially early in your career, you’ll sometimes only know if something’s not for you if you try it. Finally, it is important to establish good collaborations. Not only are they productive, but also important for building both capacity and community.

What are you reading to right now?­­

Right now, I’m reading The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. It’s an account of someone who spends most of their days observing a pair of peregrines in Essex, England. It is a really beautiful piece of nature writing. I was just away last week to visit family and we saw many beautiful birds on the east coast. So it was lovely to read a book about peregrines, which are stunning raptors. It was very restorative.

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