Christine Fennessey is the head of the Viral Evolution Core and a staff scientist in the Retroviral Evolution Section in AIDS and Cancer Virus Program of the Frederick National Laboratory. She obtained her Ph.D. from the Georgia Institute of Technology in molecular biology in 2010 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University prior to joining FNL as a postdoctoral fellow. She has since been promoted to scientist and head of the sequencing core. Under the direction of Dr. Brandon Keele, she helped develop the first barcoded SIV, which has now become the gold standard virus for nonhuman primate studies, having been distributed to over 50 different laboratories nationwide. For this work, she received the International AIDS Society Lange-van Tongeren Prize for Young Investigators in 2017 and the Leidos Publication Prize for Life Science and Medicine in 2018. Her current work is focused on providing expert sequencing and phylogenetic analyses to collaborators across the country and using the barcoded virus to examine unanswered questions regarding HIV transmission, viral dynamics, and cure.  

She resides in Frederick MD with her patient husband, two rambunctious children, two affectionate dogs, and a cranky old cat. 

Can you tell me about your work at the Frederick National Laboratory? 

I am head of the Viral Evolution Core, which is the AIDS and Cancer Virus Program’s HIV and SIV Sequencing Facility. We perform viral sequencing from a variety of sample types, from tissues to plasma to cell culture supernatant both for investigators within the program and for external researchers. Beyond that, we also perform significant analyses on the data produced in the lab so we can contribute the most meaningful and informative results to our collaborators. 

I also work as a scientist with Dr. Brandon Keele. His lab is primarily focused on identifying factors that influence HIV transmission both on the host side and on the virus side. We also study viral dynamics which is essentially how the virus behaves once it has infected a person. And we also study the factors that have proven to be the major obstacles to finding a cure for HIV. We study these fundamental aspects of HIV biology using monkey models, which are ideal systems that allow us to control multiple variables that would be impossible to do in humans, and really focus in on the one specific aspect of HIV we’re hoping to elucidate. 

What does your day look like?

My day-to-day job entails a lot of odds and ends. I perform a lot of QC on data that the viral evolution core generates and then prepare the analyses on it to make it actually comprehensible! I also manage the projects coming in and out of the lab and our budget, troubleshoot technical issues in the lab, and discuss new ideas for projects. In addition to all that, at the moment, our program is also focused on writing papers and preparing data because we have a site visit coming up soon. Every five years, our program is assessed by the NCI to ensure that we’re being good stewards of government funds. So right now, we're taking all the work that we've done in the last five years and writing it up to get everything presentable for that. 

Tell me about your day in the lab. 

When I do work in the lab, I support Brandon’s research section by doing molecular biology work. That basically entails genetically modifying SIV (the monkey equivalent of HIV) so that it has specific features we’re interested in like a genetic marker or a fluorescent tag. Or I’ll do cell culture work which entails infecting cells under specific conditions in the lab to observe how the virus grows out.  

How did you become interested in your line of work, and what drew you to the Frederick National Laboratory? 

Like many others, how I got to be where I am now wasn’t a clear path. When I was in graduate school, I was working on my PhD in environmental microbiology, specifically bioremediation of radioactive waste in the environment. But when I completed the program, I realized I didn't want to keep doing that. Instead, I really wanted to do something that involved more medical microbiology.  

With that, I decided to take a postdoc opportunity at Vanderbilt studying bacterial toxins. However, our lab ended up losing funding and at that point, I felt I had to scramble to find the next thing. As I began applying to different places that looked like they might have interesting projects, I came across Brandon’s lab. He was a rising star in HIV and all his projects seemed exciting and cutting edge. When it came time to the interview, I decided that this could be a great fit for me. While it may seem like I kind of fell into the Frederick National Laboratory, I have truly enjoyed my time here.  

What do you enjoy about working at the Frederick National Laboratory?  

This is a really easy question! For me, it's definitely the team. I sincerely enjoy all the people I work with, but especially the Viral Evolution Core and my supervisor, Brandon. The members of the Viral Evolution Core are all bright and dedicated and fun, and Brandon is a very inspiring and supportive boss. 

A close second is the spirit of scientific openness that we have. What I found working in academia, where funding is so dependent on your publications and getting grants, people who make discoveries often keep new scientific insight to themselves to make sure they don’t have to share credit for the work. Here at FNL, we share our ideas, resources, time and creativity. Also, I love how there's room to have these really big ideas that wouldn’t be feasible in any other research setting. 

While I run the Viral Sequencing Core, our program also has several other cores, all offering different expert services. Having access to all these cores literally right next door is really such a huge benefit, because we’re able to apply a variety of analyses to projects and generate more interesting and well-rounded data. Plus, I get to just yell down the hall to my coworkers if I need help explaining the results they generated! 

What accomplishments at the Frederick National Laboratory are you most proud of or how has your work made impact?

When I first joined Brandon’s lab, he had this idea to generate a Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV – the monkey version of HIV) that had a genetic tag encoded into it in order to track individual viral variants. While it took a lot of sweat and tears (luckily no blood...), I managed to make this virus so that each individual virion has its own genetic signature.  

This virus has become the gold standard virus for nonhuman primate studies of HIV, and it's now used in dozens of labs across the country. It's been used to study so many different aspects of HIV and it’s humbling to think that this little virus I made with my own two hands is now being used by some of the best HIV researchers in the country for important studies that will contribute to our knowledge of HIV. 

What piece of advice has helped you in your career? 

 It’s not so much advice as a general mindset, it’s a quote from Desmond Tutu which is, “there’s only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time”. I always think about this whenever I have a big paper to write or feel like I have a to-do list a mile long. I just need to buckle down, start doing the small things and make a dent in what feels like an overwhelming task. 

What are some of your hobbies or special interests outside of the office?

I have two small children who seem to take up 98% of my time when I’m not at work or asleep, but I do occasionally have a few moments to partake in hobbies I enjoy such as rock climbing, baking, watching trashy reality TV shows and using my Peloton. 

Give us one little-known fact about you or your best-kept secret?

I don't put it on my CV because I don't want to brag, but in 2003, I was Chili’s employee of the month. I still have the plaque they gave me to showcase this achievement, though my husband makes me keep it in the basement bathroom... 

Portrait photo