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Jemma Geoghegan image
Professor Jemma Geoghegan.

After a global search, Professor Jemma Geoghegan has been appointed the Webster Family Chair in Viral Pathogenesis at the University of Otago.

A Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, School of Biomedical Sciences, Professor Geoghegan is the third holder of the position, following Professor Miguel Quiñones-Mateu who was appointed in 2019, and the inaugural recipient Professor Andrew Mercer, who held the position from 2005 until his retirement.

Her research focuses on how and why viruses jump hosts and emerge in new populations, and how they evolve while they spread. She has helped pioneer bioinformatic methods for the discovery of novel viruses which are beginning to revolutionise the study of virology.

“As part of the Leading Thinkers Initiative, this Chair is a huge privilege and I am incredibly grateful to Professor Webster and his family for making this possible,” Professor Geoghegan says.

“This position and the associated funding will mean that my current research will be expanded beyond what I thought would be possible. My hope is that by collaborating broadly and building up a network of people working in this area, we can really expand our understanding of this field of virology.”

Originally from Scotland, Professor Geoghegan completed her PhD with Professor Hamish Spencer in the Department of Zoology in 2012, before moving to the United States to undertake postdoctoral research on HIV at New York University. Her career then took her to University of Sydney and Macquarie University, before she returned to Otago with her family in early 2020.

COVID-19 hit the headlines about the same time as Professor Geoghegan arrived at Otago and she immediately found herself not just at the forefront of research into the virus, but often in front of media cameras and microphones, both nationally and internationally.

“Being on the front-line of the country’s response to a viral pandemic was definitely something I didn’t think I’d ever experience,” she says.

During this time, she co-led with her colleagues at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research the establishment of genomic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2.

The resulting genomic approach was described as “world leading” in a report commissioned by the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor and as a result viral genomics became critical to New Zealand’s successful public health response.

She continues to build on this work and was recently awarded a Health Research Council Project grant to lead genomic sequencing of other viral infections that have been, and will be re-introduced into the community following the return of international travel.

“Through this initiative, I intend to build Aotearoa’s inaugural framework for genomic pathogen surveillance,” Professor Geoghegan says.

A focus for Professor Geoghegan has always been to inspire and be a role model for women in science.

“An important priority for me is to train the next generation of scientists in this field, to build capability and ensure we are much better prepared to tackle the challenges that infectious diseases will bring,” she says.

“This role demonstrates leadership in research and I hope it will encourage a change in culture where women are seen to be leaders in this space too.”

Acting Vice Chancellor Professor Helen Nicholson says Professor Geoghegan has an exceptional track record as an internationally recognised, respected and high impact scientist.

“As a globally respected scientist, Jemma has made significant contributions in her field which have not only garnered acclaim from peers but has also led to groundbreaking advancements.

“Jemma’s expertise and accomplishments makes her the ideal person for this prestigious position, and I have no doubt she will seize every opportunity to make even greater strides in her research and inspire others to do the same.”

The Webster Chair in Viral Pathogenesis

The University of Otago established the 'Leading Thinkers Initiative' in 2004 as part of the government's Partnerships for Excellence Framework. The Initiative invested in people who were knowledge leaders working in areas considered vital to New Zealand's well-being. Academics have been recruited from New Zealand and around the world to fill these prestigious and important positions. The projects cover the breadth of academic disciplines at Otago and all meet the objectives of the University’s Strategic Direction.

The Webster Family Chair in Viral Pathogenesis was endowed by Robert and Marjorie Webster in 2005 in conjunction with the Leading Thinkers campaign.

Professor Webster is a noted virologist and international expert in influenza. He was the first to acknowledge a link between human and avian flu. His team isolated and identified the avian-adapted strain of H5N1, the causative agent of H5N1 flu commonly known as “avian influenza” or “bird flu”. He is an expert in the structure and function of influenza proteins and in the development of new vaccines and anti-virals. The reservoir of influenza viruses in wild birds, and their role in the evolution of new pandemic strains for humans and lower animals, continue to be a focus of his work.

Robert Webster studied at the University of Otago in Microbiology where he completed a BSc and MSc. During his distinguished career, he has held many research posts, starting out as a virologist with the New Zealand Department of Agriculture.

He continues his work in infectious diseases at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the USA . He has published more than 600 original articles and reviews on influenza viruses.

For more information please contact:

Professor Jemma Geoghegan
Department of Microbiology and Immunology
University of Otago

Lea Jones
Communications Adviser, Media Engagement
University of Otago
Mob +64 21 279 4969

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