Jacqui Ralston has been working for ESR’s Clinical Virology department for 12 years now, initially as a senior technician, then as a scientist.
“Turns out, at school, science was one of my favourite subjects and I was good at it, so it was inevitable that I progressed along that line, taking all the science and maths options I could,” she recalls. “I was also a member of ‘Junior Naturalists’, where we learnt all sorts of interesting things about nature, and many of our instructors for this were scientists. I guess they were mentors for me.”
Jacqui’s first job was with the Ruakura Research Station near Hamilton, where she was involved in a variety of research projects and experiments. “This increased my enthusiasm for continuing in the field of science,” she says.
“I started off as a technician at Ruakura’s Animal Nutrition Centre. We had the sheep and cows with plugs in their sides, plus we had cows in calorimeters, where everything they ingested and expelled (including their breath) was measured. I even used to explode freeze-dried cows’ urine to see what energy was lost that way! We were basically looking at what energy went into the animal, from a variety of feed products and where that energy was used.”
Ruakura also gave Jacqui the opportunity to continue studying part time and advance to senior technician.
In the early 1980s, Jacqui found herself working at the New Zealand Forest Research Institute (now Scion) in Rotorua. This role saw Jacqui involved in the micropropagation of pine trees. “We ended up splitting the five cells of a pine seed to get five trees, instead of one, from each seed,” she explains. “That felt very satisfying.”
From there, Jacqui joined the Central Animal Health laboratory in Upper Hutt, working for the then Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. That’s where she started her role as a virologist. “Before PCR’s were invented, we did a lot of viral culture work and various other assays, including some histology, to determine what type of virus we were dealing with. I’ve even used the transmission electron microscope that they had on site to look at viruses I’d cultured, which was fantastic,” she recalls.
“I’ve always enjoyed cell and viral culturing,” Jacqui says. “Nowadays, I’m working on SARs-CoV-2, and that’s fascinating.”
“The job can sometimes be challenging and certainly keeps you busy,” she reflects. “But I work with some fabulous people, and I love setting up new assays and seeing the results we get from them.”