Dr Philip Rice, Virologist

Tell us a bit about your average working day. 

My day begins at 7am when I start my 20 mile cycle commute. Luckily, it’s mostly off-road down a disused railway in north Norfolk called Marriott’s way. This gives me plenty of thinking time. Winter’s not so good, but spring and summer make up for it. I arrive at work, shower, change into my work clothes and often my first job is answering the phone.

The rest of the morning is spent deciding which tests to perform on which samples based upon what the clinicians have written about the patient on the request form. The more information they write down, the more likely it is that virology will make the correct diagnosis.

The day is then a succession of phone calls from inside and outside the hospital, queries from the laboratory scientific staff, whilst I authorise results from the laboratory and teach the trainee doctors. One’s knowledge and how to use it to make decisions is constantly being tested.

Why did you choose this specialty? 

I chose virology because I really like finding out how small things work. With viruses, because they are so small (in terms of their DNA or RNA content) that, by drilling down to the tiniest detail, there is a prospect of understanding them and how they interact with humans, in their totality. You can understand how they transmit, persist and cause disease, and how they still manage to evade our immune system. It’s fascinating.

What do you enjoy most about your job and specialty? 

Putting all the pieces of information together (history, symptoms, signs, who the patient is, what they do in their life etc.), plus the results of other laboratory tests and making the diagnosis. If you understand who the patient is, it makes getting the diagnosis right much easier. Making a diagnosis the clinicians haven’t even thought of is the best; it’s a rare event but fun nevertheless.

Are there any achievements that you are particularly proud of? 

Over 20 years ago I was responsible for saving someone’s life from pneumonia caused by the virus which leads to chickenpox. This was because I knew two things: how to use the laboratory to make a rapid diagnosis and what a life-threatening position this patient was in. Since that time this virus has fascinated me.

This has led to uncovering the reason why chickenpox is much less common in tropical countries – it’s less infectious because the virus is destroyed by higher levels of UV radiation in that part of the world; and the reason for that? A collision between Earth and another planet during the formation of our solar system about 4.5 billion year ago tilted Earth onto its current axis so creating our tropical and temperate zones. For such a cataclysmic event to lead directly to tiny genetic changes in this virus just shows how exquisitely interconnected are the biological and physical worlds. I feel very fortunate to have made that connection and continue to study its ramifications.

What advice would you give to students looking to enter your field?

If you really like a subject, study it really hard. It will get more interesting the deeper you go. And, when you begin to think about the connections between different branches of pathology or science in general, that’s when the real excitement starts.

Feeling inspired?

Has Philip's career in virology got you fascinated about bugs? Learn more about what it takes to become a virologist.