Five Questions with Tim Sheahan

Tim Sheahan likes science and music for the same reason.

Name: Tim Sheahan
Position: Research assistant professor, Department of Epidemiology
Time at the Gillings School: 1.5 (I’m also a UNC alumnus. I earned my PhD from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine.)

 

Tim and his family visit Duke Gardens on an early spring day.

Tim and his family visit Duke Gardens on an early spring day.

What I do at UNC Gillings (and why I love it): I work on coronaviruses, which are known to infect people and wild animals on every continent but Antarctica. In particular, I study emerging coronaviruses, which are those that have recently “jumped” from animal to human hosts. Two recent examples are SARS, which jumped from bats to humans, and MERS, which jumped from bats to camels to humans. By figuring out how a virus comes to infect people, we also get clues about how to fight it. Right now, I’m working with a pharmaceutical company to develop an antiviral drug. So far, it’s worked against every coronavirus we’ve tested, and has been used in two patients with Ebola as well. There’s a wonderful piece from Médecins Sans Frontières International that shares the story of Nubia, the first infant to survive being born with Ebola – this drug was likely a crucial part of her recovery.

I like my job because it’s fascinating to study viruses that are great at switching hosts. The diversity of coronaviruses in wild animals, coupled with the potential for a novel coronavirus emergence in the future, means I’ll be studying them for a long time to come. I also enjoy working in a BL3 lab – that stands for “biosafety level three” – because it requires working in a full biohazard suit with sterile air being pumped into the suit at all times. I’ve been working under those conditions since I was a student; it may sound strange but, for me, it feels like home.

 

Outside of work: I like to cook. Now that my daughters, who are three and five, are a bit older, we sometimes make homemade pasta and sauce together. I also love music and have been writing and recording since I was 14 years old. After finishing undergrad, I moved to Boston, got a job as a lab tech and tried to start a music career. The thing is, playing punk rock as a career is really hard and not very lucrative! That’s when I realized science could satisfy a lot of the creative drive that music had helped me explore.

 

When it comes to how science is done: I care a lot about research communication. Sitting in the audience during a research talk, I know how quickly a bad presentation can lead to lost interest. If your intention is to convince an audience of something or make them care about a finding, a picture will always be more powerful than a paragraph. I’ve actually been working on this concept for 10+ years: What’s the best way to tell the story of my work? My wife (Anna Sheahan, a 2010 alumna of the Department of Epidemiology), jokes that my ideal research talk would be a series of cartoons with no text, and that’s not too far from the truth. When I was a kid, I thought I might be an artist, and now that translates into me using graphics software to illustrate my work. Creating this art is much slower and more difficult than describing findings with a series of bullet points on a slide but, for me, it’s worth it if my work will be memorable. I always tell my students: If people viewing your presentation have to think about what you are showing them, then you didn’t make it right.

 

If I could have one superpower, I’d choose: the ability to go without sleep. If I didn’t have to sleep, I would get so much done.

 

Something I dream of doing one day: is playing music with a band again. I’m not sure how to make that happen, but playing with other people is good in intangible ways. You know, I think that what draws a lot of people to science – myself included – is that you conduct research and learn things that no one else in the world has ever known before. It’s the same with music: A group of musicians can create something that’s never been heard before.

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