Research Hero: Edith Paxton, Research Assistant at the Roslin Institute

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In the first of our new Research Heroes series, Bulletin speaks to Edith Paxton, a Research Assistant at the Roslin Institute, about her work supporting research on livestock infection caused by microscopic parasites. Research Heroes celebrates the many people who help make the University’s research extraordinary.

Agriculture contributes up to 60 per cent of some sub-Saharan African countries’ gross domestic product, but an insect as small as 8mm has plagued farmers in the affected countries for centuries. The tsetse fly carries the trypanosome parasite that can cause nagana (animal African trypanosomiasis) in animals such as goats, sheep and cattle. Researchers at the University’s Roslin Institute are working to tackle this by investigating why parasites in livestock have become resistant to drugs.  

“I’ve been involved in a big project in Tanzania for a few years, the most recent one is about drug resistance in cattle,” explains Edith Paxton, a Research Assistant at the Roslin Institute, who provides technical support in the research to transform the lives of farmers. 

“It involves working with farmers and taking a lot of blood samples. There’s a social science aspect as well, because some of the research is about the farmers not being able to afford the drugs, or not being able to mix them up properly and give them to the animals, which is causing a lot of resistance to the drugs.” 

Edith has worked at the University since 1984 and has been at the Roslin Institute for 20 years. Her first job at the University was for the Centre for Tropical Veterinary Medicine where she worked for 17 years. 

“I did have a degree but a lot of people my age would get a job and go to college one day a week and work part-time,” Edith says. “No one does that now. We don’t have anyone young coming in who didn’t have a degree.” 

She adds: “I started young and at the end of contracts I kept getting another job. I think you would have to be very focused if you’re interested in a specific area. I was interested in a wide range of areas so I went where I could get work.  

“I used to work in the Centre for Tropical Veterinary Medicine, and I had short contracts there – the teaching lab, then a virology lab and I stayed in that job covering people who were on maternity leave or short contracts.” 

Edith Paxton has worked at the University since 1984 Photograph by Sam Ingram-Sills

A detrimental impact  

When tsetse flies bite, the parasites (trypanosomes) transferred can cause fever, weakness, weight loss, decreased milk production and anemia in animals. This affects yields, production and income, leading to a loss of $4.5 billion US dollars. 

Edith says the economic impact of this cannot be underestimated: “Not only are cattle dying, but it also affects production – they are not producing milk or meat. If farmers only have two cows and they lose one, that’s half their income gone. It will impact the poorer farmers in Africa if we can find a cure or a drug that works better.” 

There is currently no available vaccine for trypanosomiasis and drugs to treat infection are inexpensive but have not been updated in decades, meaning drug resistance is increasing.  

Edith says: “We are trying to find out why the drugs don’t work. There hasn’t been a new drug for years so the impact would be maybe a diagnostic test or a drug that works, anything to stop the cattle dying.” 

As well as laboratory work and experimental animal work, Edith has also participated in fieldwork in long-running studies in Tanzania, some of which involved work in challenging conditions. 

“I have been on three fieldtrips to Africa to help PhD students who had to do a lot of work in a short space of time. In Tanzania we had to drive through the Serengeti to get to the village we were going to,” she says. 

Edith Paxton has has been at the Roslin Institute for 20 years Photograph by Sam Ingram-Sills

Interdisciplinary work

Edith won the Contribution to Research and Innovation prize at the 2023 Technician Awards for her support to multiple projects involving trypanosomes, contributing her wide-ranging skillsets in the past 12 months to work involving molecular biology, in vitro culture, flow cytometry, microscopy and in vivo work involving cattle. 

The judges also acknowledged that Edith has contributed and been co-author on 12 papers in the last five years (and is co-author on a further five submitted articles under review), and the data she has generated has directly informed grants awarded from BBSRC, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and Zoetis. 

Edith also contributes to the smooth running of a laboratory space that includes at least 15 research groups. Part of this work involves a focus on sustainability. 

“Some of us are responsible for a wing and in our wing, we have four lab modules so it’s important to keep on top of it. We are called wing coordinators, and we organise the supplies, the consumable goods that everyone uses, every week and prevent people from wasting plastic. We spend an unbelievable amount of money on plastics, and I don’t think people appreciate that.” 

What does the future hold? Edith says she has no plans to retire and enjoys working on the University’s Easter Bush campus in the rolling countryside in the south of Edinburgh. 

She says: “I worked in the city centre for nearly three years, but I prefer the Easter Bush campus.  

“I’m older than most people here now. It’s great working with lots of young people and different nationalities and cultures – Africans, Chinese, Asians, South Americans. It’s nice to have a mix of everyone and I think the small role I play has a tangible impact.” 

Edith contributes to the smooth running of a laboratory space that includes at least 15 research groups Photograph by Sam Ingram-Sills

Find out more

The Roslin Institute | The University of Edinburgh 

University of Edinburgh Technician Awards 

To find out more about how the University is supporting technicians like Edith and the whole research community, please visit the Research and Innovation website and read the new strategy. 

Research and Innovation | The University of Edinburgh