Meet Adrian Liston, international immunologist

Meet Adrian Liston, international immunologist

Professor Adrian Liston is a senior group leader in the Institute’s Immunology programme. He joined the Institute in 2019 after leading teams at the University of Leuven Department of Microbiology and Immunology and the VIB Center for Brain and Disease Research. In this profile, Adrian discusses how his background and experiences have influenced his research, what’s exciting him about his current research projects and shares perspectives gained over the course of his career so far. Adrian has shared his advice on key professional and personal milestones in other online articles and guides: please see the additional resources section beneath the Q&A.

Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up, and how that has impacted your science?

I grew up in a truck-driving family in Australia and was the first to finish high-school. Despite the disadvantages that come from being working class, it is actually good preparation for a career in science. We are used to nothing coming easy! Scientists work at the very boundaries of knowledge, which means we are working blind and are frequently wrong. I think it is intrinsically difficult for high achievers to fail, pick themselves up, and fail again. So when I recruit trainees to the lab, one thing I look for is success in the face of adversity. I deliberately recruit to build a diverse team of people, who have demonstrated perseverance in the face of adversity and bring their own unique insights.

Do you have any career advice for young scientists?

As a first-gen academic, the entire career pathway was opaque to me at the start of my journey. Finding out the unwritten rules of academia the hard way, or stumbling upon a successful formula by luck, is not just an inefficient process – it is a process that disproportionately blocks the careers of under-represented groups. I can’t say I’ve entirely figured out the system, but somehow I have made it through from truck-driver’s kid to senior Cambridge academic. There is always a huge risk of extrapolating from a single experience, so perhaps my first piece of advice for young scientists is to learn from a diverse set of people, especially those with life-experiences that parallel yours and understand your unique challenges. For me, the winning formula has been to find great people, support them, and hit the ground running. The only safe scientific program is a pipeline large and diverse enough to tolerate the inevitable failures.

The academic career pathway is brutal and uncertain but at the same time, it isn’t all doom-and-gloom for young scientists. I believe a biomed PhD is among the safest investment you can make in the modern economy. Having followed the careers of over 100 PhD students, only a handful obtained an independent academic post, but literally every one has landed in a place they find fulfilling. The skills of critical thinking, major project development, self-education and resilience are in enormous demand throughout the economy. We are living in a skills shortage and biomed PhDs are rare talent. In my experience, relatively few postdocs are pushed out of academia. It is far more common that they are pulled into an exciting new career that they had never anticipated. When I look at the talented scientists around me I never doubt that they will all end up being successful; the only caveat is that most end up being successful in a different way to what they originally planned for!

What scientific questions do you find most interesting?

The question I find most interesting is always the one I am working on at the moment! I wish it was because I was getting better at identifying interesting questions, but I think there is just something about the unanswered question that is intrinsically interesting. The pursuit of interesting questions has led our lab to work on many different topics over the years – diabetes, cancer, neuroimmunology, primary immunodeficiency, systems immunology, bioinformatics and fundamental T cell biology, among other topics. Right now I am trying to change the way we run projects in the lab, to form larger teams able to tackle a single topic from multiple approaches, so we are more focused in our questions than we have been in the past. The two major topics moving forward are tissue immunology and neuroimmunology.

What is it about these two topics that attracts you?

Many of the most important immune reactions occur in the tissues – infections, autoimmune diseases, inflammatory diseases – yet almost all of immunological research has been focused on the circulating immune system. Tissues provide an intrinsically different environment for immune cells to live in, different potential for interaction partners and different dynamics for immune processes. There is so much we don’t know about how immune cells adapt to the tissues, how they alter the resilience of tissues to damage, how local immune responses are coordinated and how immune-mediated damage is repaired. The problem is not simply that the tissues have been neglected, but rather that the tools immunologists have built over decades are unsuited to answer many of these questions. We almost need to build a new field of tissue immunology from the ground up, starting with generating the necessary tools. I really enjoy the opportunity this creates – the chance to be creative, percolate innovative ideas around the team, and guide the wet-lab implementation.

With neuroimmunology, I am convinced that in 10 years, immunology will revolutionise the treatment of neurological disorders, the same way it is fundamentally changing the treatment of cancer right now. In both cases, the fields were highly resistant to the idea of immunology being an important pathophysiological process – in cancer, due to the concept of self-tolerance, in neuroscience, due to the presence of the blood-brain-barrier. Fortunately, the immune system has almost unlimited potential, and it is one of the biological systems most amenable to direct therapeutic manipulation. In cancer, the evidence had been building for decades on the latent immune responses present, but it took the success of immune checkpoint blockade to unleash this torrent of medical advances. In the neurosciences we are a decade behind. There is growing evidence that the blood-brain-barrier is not absolute – indeed we recently demonstrated that. The immune system is almost certainly a driver across multiple neuroinflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases, and the repair pathways used by the immune system may allow therapeutic exploitation to correct even non-immunological damage. I see neuroimmunology as our chance to hasten the next medical revolution, and hopefully aid the development of new therapeutics.

You’ve written books for children on the coronavirus and the immune system, and created a virus outbreak stimulator. Is communicating science to wider audiences an important part of being a scientist?

It is certainly important that some scientists engage in science communication. The decline of science journalism and the rise of social media platforms elevating pseudoscience makes it critical that the voices of scientists are heard. That said, I don't see it as an essential part of any scientific career. There are so many science-adjacent activities that need to be done - communications, mentoring, commercialisation, teaching public policy, administration, regulatory frameworks, health and safety, ethics, just to mention a few. It is very easy to load scientists up with so many science-adjacent responsibilities that the actual science gets squeezed out. So while it is important that it all gets done, I advise my trainees to take the rare opportunity to focus on science, and to only pick up these science-adjacent responsibilities when they have a personal interest or a particular aptitude.

For me, science communications comes rather naturally, since my role in the lab is to look at complex data, distil it down to simple concepts and then develop the story. Obviously the pitch is different if the audience is the readership of a journal like Cell versus my nine year-old child, but the basic idea is the same! 

Career snapshot:

Prof. Adrian Liston is an Australian-British-Belgian researcher. He gained his PhD at the Australian National University studying T cell tolerance and diabetes. He moved on to study regulatory T cells at the University of Washington before starting his own lab at VIB in 2009. He joined the Babraham Institute as senior group leader in the Immunology research programme in 2019. Prof. Liston has produced over 180 publications with over 10,000 citations. He has been awarded the Eppendorf Prize and a Francqui Chair, among other honours, and was recently elected a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. He also holds degrees in Public Health and Higher Education.

Image description: Professor Adrian Liston

Additional/related resources:
News, 12 May 2021 Immunology expert Prof Adrian Liston elected Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences
News, 13 November 2020 Dissecting the immune characteristics of severe COVID-19 responses
News, 22 July 2020 New role for white blood cells in the developing brain
News, 27 March 2020 Children’s book ‘Battle Robots of the Blood’ launches
Life story: Adrian Liston: eLife article on balancing parenthood and science
YouTube presentation by Adrian: A cynic’s guide to getting a faculty position
Sylvie Lesage & Adrian Liston, Applying for Junior Faculty Positions as a Research Scientist, Stroke
Adrian Liston & Sylvie Lesage, Starting Your Independent Research LaboratoryStroke
Adrian’s webpage featuring a beta version of Virus Outbreak