Meet Ashna Pillai and Hao-Kai Tseng

On a regular basis, we will be profiling a member of the Vaccine Centre. In this edition we are shining a spotlight on Ashna Pillai and Hao Kai Tseng, our Vaccine Centre student liaison officers who tell us about their contributions to the work of the centre, their research interests, as well as some amazing achievements and wonderful developments in their personal lives.
A photo of Ahna Pillai and Hao-Kai Tseng

Tell us about your current studies and research

Ashna: I’m currently studying MSc Public Health at LSHTM, my studies include a range of areas from health policy, statistics, social research, environmental epidemiology, healthcare evaluation, interventions and more. My summer project focuses on the nexus of climate change and chronic kidney disease in lower-middle income countries. I stay updated on the vaccine world through the centre and being part of the management committee.  

Kai: I am doing MSc Health Data Science programme. My summer project focuses on predicting the expected notification rate of a polio surveillance indicator in endemic and outbreak settings.

How did you first become interested in vaccines and why did you want to become student liaison officers (SLO) for the Vaccine Centre?

Ashna: During my Biomedical Sciences undergraduate studies, I delved into the topic of vaccinology and immune responses to specific viral antigens. Later I went on to work as a Clinical Scientist at Pfizer UK in vaccines evidence generation and clinical affairs. I supported vaccine effectiveness studies, data review, and trial operations. Working on social listening projects for COVID-19 vaccine tracking in emerging markets helped me gain insight into consumer behaviour and vaccine hesitancy sentiments. I decided to become an SLO to continue learning more about vaccines and spreading awareness for global health initiatives and vaccine engagement activities!

Kai: In my previous job I implemented various COVID protection measures in a Health Bureau in Taiwan. During the later stages of the pandemic I realised that vaccination served as the most promising solution for averting severe illness and loss of life at scale. This gave me the encouragement me to join the Vaccine Centre to learn more about vaccines.

What do you hope to achieve during your time as SLOs?

Ashna & Kai: During our time as SLOs we hope to help reach a wide range of students and academics at the school with our engaging seminars and exciting events. We are also keen to share and develop our knowledge and help make vaccine education material more accessible through science communication to address concerns, stigma, and misinformation. If you are looking for vaccinology resources, Ashna’s blog post might be a good place to start!

What do you find particularly exciting working with the Vaccine Centre?

Ashna & Kai: Working with the Vaccine Centre has been an incredible experience. As SLOs we really enjoy getting involved and taking the lead on some aspects of the planning, organising, and roll-out of events and communications. The centre serves as a network for academics, researchers, students, and the public. It’s amazing to see how innovative ideas develop into fully fledged research projects and how collaborative brainstorming turns into a large-scale annual lecture. The diverse experiences and perspectives of our members make the centre a truly dynamic and rich platform to learn from. We also enjoy sharing our roles as SLOs, using “Ashna & Kai” as our collective partnership.

We’ve been working on a film screening for staff and students at the John Snow lecture theatre on the evening of 17 June. The film is called Shot in the Arm and the documentary discusses ‘antivax’ activities along with complex social and political determinants around measles and COVID-19. We’ll be joined by the film director Scott Hamilton Kennedy and professor Heidi Larson for a panel Q&A afterwards. We hope to see many colleagues there. 

Where do you think your research will take you and what are your next steps?

Ashna: My studies and research here at LSHTM will be pivotal in the work I hope to do in the future. Particularly, health policy and strategy insights which I could apply in pharmaceutical and immunisation policy settings. I’m excited to further develop the evidence-base on environmental health aspects and climate resilience in LMICs. It would be great to identify areas to support regarding the interface of climate change and vaccination uptake. I’d like to explore these avenues of further research as I develop and grow in my academic path.

Kai: I hope my research will support a big agenda, where scientific beauty and uncertainty coexist. This agenda, eradicating polio globally, is intertwined with various factors such as immunisation, healthcare systems, co-circulating diseases, and social-political dynamics, e.g. conflicts. Understanding how these factors influence the reported indicator can help us assess the sensitivity of polio surveillance systems.

What are some of the real-life implications of your work?

Ashna & Kai: Our work with the Vaccine Centre has some great impacts on connecting researchers, academics, and students alike. As SLOs we aim to engage the student body with interesting events and the latest research from the centre. For the most recent World Immunisation Week 2024 we produced a podcast where we began to detangle the social contract of immunisation through an anthropological deep dive into outbreak management and vaccine engagement with Assistant Professor Ben Kasstan-Dabush. Students had great feedback on our insightful episode, and for us it was great to see the work we did sparking interest and important discussions.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

Ashna: I am a pretty dedicated bookworm! I enjoy reading a range of books from contemporary romance to thrillers and fantasy, right now I’m working my way through the ACOTAR series a perfect mix of all of the above. I’m also a fan of exploring galleries, exhibitions, musicals, and concerts. I have a Romeo & Juliet West End Play and Taylor Swift concert lined up for my summer.

Kai: My life cannot go without bars – the bars at gyms. I like the fact that you have to be honest in weightlifting: if you can’t lift it, you simply can’t. Holding a vegetarian cooking certificate in Taiwan, I spend much of my time in kitchen. Also, I cultivate my blog.

What would you consider an interesting fact about yourself you don’t mind sharing?

Ashna: I hiked the Old Man of Storr mountain on the Isle of Skye (elevation of 719 metres) in just under 3 hours through a rainstorm and survived! Luckily as I got to see the Northern lights that very evening. 🌌🌠❄️

Kai: I proposed to my boyfriend Matthew earlier this year at a symphonic concert (and he said yes). I want to take this opportunity to express my love for him, although I’ve been saying it every day.

How can people get and stay in touch with you?

Ashna & Kai: We are also student ambassadors here at the school so you can reach us through Ashna’s profile and Kai’s profile. We are happy to be contacted for queries via our emails or you can also connect with us on Ashna’s LinkedIn and Kai’s LinkedIn.


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