Dr Anne Wyllie

Dr Anne Wyllie is a medical microbiology researcher at the Yale School of Public Health. She was part of the team that developed SalivaDirect, a groundbreaking saliva-based PCR test for Covid-19.

For over ten years, medical microbiology researcher Dr Anne Wyllie has been looking at ways of using saliva samples to detect pathogens in the upper respiratory tract. When the Covid-19 pandemic spread around the world, she was part of the team at the Yale School of Public Health that developed a groundbreaking testing method. “For many, testing was either impossible to access or far too expensive – we wanted to come up with a solution to overcome that,” she says.

The result was her proudest achievement yet – a simple, saliva-based PCR test called SalivaDirect. Not only was this a huge step forward in the global fight against Covid-19, it also taught Anne the true power of teamwork. “During the pandemic response, seeing the impact of so many people coming together from across many different fields and backgrounds, the potential of collaboration is something that I want to actively pursue and foster,” she says.

It’s one of many lessons Anne has learned since undertaking a Bachelor of Science and later a Master of Science at the University of Auckland, which she believes provided a robust foundation for her success. “I appreciated the breadth of topics that the undergraduate courses offered and that these were taught by a range of academics,” she says. “I appreciated being taught lectures by those who were working directly on the subject and learning from them.”

Although she left the University of Auckland uncertain about her career path, she quickly found her passion in exploring academic research. Since then, science has taken her everywhere from the Netherlands to New Haven. “Perhaps a few years ago I would have had different ideas for where I might be, but as my career progresses the more I realise that we shouldn’t hold ourselves up to benchmarks we set through comparison to others,” she says.

Nobody could have foreseen how the Covid-19 pandemic would change our lives, and Anne’s experience is no different. The most rewarding part of being involved in the pandemic response, she says, has been seeing the impact of her work in the community. “Whether that was through informing vaccination strategies to help protect individuals against disease, or with testing options that kept kids in schools, workplaces open and sports being played,” she says.

Now as the principal investigator of a large research group at the Yale School of Public Health, Anne remains focused on better understanding disease in our communities. “Much of what we know about respiratory commensals and pathogens is what we learn from disease,” she says. “Understanding the true prevalence of these in the community setting and in healthy individuals can help us to better understand what separates those that cause disease and those that don’t.”

After the success of her work with SalivaDirect, Anne also hopes to continue championing the potential of saliva as a low-cost testing option to make research funds go much further. “The thing I love about science is that your career will evolve as your interests and passions evolve,” she says. “It offers the opportunity to pursue topics that pique your interest and has so many different paths that you can adjust as necessary in order to keep you happy.”

Despite making her name as a pioneering scientist, researcher, and now 40 Under 40 winner, Anne has some other passions outside of science that require her attention after a very busy few years. She adores travelling, fine dining and running – although her role in the pandemic response understandably kept her otherwise occupied and made it difficult to find time to pound the pavement. Not to worry, though – she’s back into it and has just completed the Chicago Marathon with a time of 3:31:11.