By Judit E. Puskas and Carin A. Helfer
Coronavirus got its name from its appearance: it looks like a ball with a crown (corona or halo) around it. The first images under an electron microscope were taken in 1964 by June Almeida, a Scottish female scientist.
The corona is made of spikes that attach the virus to cells. The RNA found inside the particle carries the information to copy the virus, allowing it to multiply. A person’s immune system will create antibodies that try to destroy the virus. These antibodies provide protection against the virus, which is how vaccines work — a weakened, or inactivated virus, is injected to trigger antibody formation. Simple? Yes, on the surface. However, June found that Hepatitis B can (i) can be carried by a person with no symptoms and no antibodies, or (ii) kill a person, or (iii) can cause health problems in a person. Sound familiar? These differences depend on the individual’s immune reaction. Therefore, developing a vaccine is more difficult than one can imagine.
Unfortunately, June died before she could enjoy wide recognition for her work. She was a remarkable woman, who became a scientist against all odds. When she was 16, she left school to become a laboratory technician in Glasgow, Scotland. Moving to London in 1952, June became a laboratory technician and research assistant for John W.S. Blacklock, a professor of pathology at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. She moved to Toronto, Canada in 1956, after marrying Henry Almeida, and was hired to work with an electron microscope at Canada’s first dedicated cancer hospital, the Ontario Cancer Institute (OCI), which was affiliated with the University of Toronto, and had recently opened. Even without a formal university degree, June was rapidly promoted to junior scientist and allowed to pursue her own independent research. She was able to make such advancement because in Canada, less emphasis was placed on formal degrees. Could this happen today in the framework of academic hiring?
After a divorce from her first husband, June raised their daughter as a single mother. She managed to continue her work and forge a major career based on her outstanding skills in electron microscopy. Her colleagues described her having “green fingers” for electron microscopy. In 1970, Albert Kapikian, an Armenian-American virologist, was trained by June, as were many other scientists. He went on to identify the Norwalk virus, which was a virus in Norwalk, Ohio, and the first norovirus to be identified. These viruses account for approximately 50% of all food-borne illnesses. Many major breakthroughs in virology in the 1960s and 1970s were due to June’s pioneering research in immune electron microscopy, which allowed her to rise to the top of her field.
Although June Almeida died in 2007, her legacy remains. She left behind virus models that are in the Science Museum in London. For all her major work in virology, she should have received a Nobel Prize.
Dr. Judit E. Puskas is a Distinguished Professor and Dr. Carin A. Helfer is a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering of The Ohio State University. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com. This column is provided by the OSU Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, OSU Extension, the Sustainability Institute and the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.