University of Dundee

Lee Armstrong Q&A

Originally from Cumbria in the north of England, Lee Armstrong is a PhD student in Yogesh Kulathu’s lab at the MRC-PPU at the University of Dundee. Lee has been working to devise ways to block replication of SARS-CoV-2 in human cells since March.

What COVID-19 project are you working on? 

The goal of a virus is to infect a host, produce more copies of itself, and then infect more hosts using those copies. In order to make more copies, the virus uses the machinery in our cells to produce its own viral machines - called enzymes - to help with replication. The enzymes of SARS-CoV-2 are expressed as one large unit, which is then chopped into smaller components that then play their role in helping the virus to replicate. We’re studying one of the enzymes that does this chopping - the papain-like protease (PLpro). We’re working to understand how this enzyme works and to see whether we can block it, thereby potentially preventing the virus from replicating in human cells.  

What do you normally work on?

My project focuses on trying to understand a class of enzymes called deubiquitinases (DUBs). Cells have to respond to a variety of different stresses, and require different types of cellular machinery at different times. When machinery is damaged or is no longer required, it is destroyed. Cells do this by tagging them with a molecule called ubiquitin. If the tagged machinery is suddenly needed, DUBs are able to rescue it from destruction by cleaving off ubiquitin. I’m working to understand the structures and functions of two DUBs from the MINDY family, MINDY3 and MINDY4. Interestingly, the PLpro from SARS-CoV-2 also has DUB activity, and disrupts ubiquitin signalling in our cells.

What’s your typical day?

I’m trying to stick to my old routine as much as possible to try and maintain some normality, so I'm at my desk for 8am ready for a full day of experiments. It’s very similar to beforehand, but the empty labs have a very creepy feel to them.

What’s it like to work in the School of Life Sciences?

There’s a very strong sense of community and camaraderie here, particularly within our unit. A PhD is challenging and so you end up becoming very close to other PhD students because you’re all going through the same thing. It’s very difficult not being able to see friends in person, but we’re keeping in touch regularly - I have to design the quiz this week for our weekly Zoom quiz. 

What activities are you undertaking to de-stress?

There’s a pond near my flat with ducks, swans and coots that I walk to most days. It’s been strangely rewarding to see all the ducklings and cygnets appear as the lockdown has progressed. It’s actually been really nice to get out and about - I think I’ve seen more of my local area than I have since I moved here. 

What can’t you wait to get back to once lockdown is lifted?

First and foremost, I can’t wait to get a haircut! Other than that, I’m looking forward to finishing work on a Friday and heading down to Duke’s Corner for a few drinks. I really miss that. It’ll also be nice to go over to Tentsmuir [Nature Reserve] for a walk when the travel restrictions are relaxed. 

Quick fire questions:

  • Tea or Coffee? Tea
  • Morning or Afternoon? Morning
  • Animal Crossing or Tiger King? Tiger King