Could you tell us a bit about what you’re working on currently?
At the moment, I am a third year PhD student at the University of Warwick where I am examining algal and bacterial interactions in the Arctic Ocean, with a focus on organosulfur compounds. I have started to characterise the biosynthesis pathway of dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) in an algal genus and the eventual catabolism pathways within the bacterial satellite community. This has led me to start to look at possible ‘trades’ to see what the bacteria might do in return for such smelly substances.
And how did you come to be working in this particular research area or project?
I have always had a great interest in life in extreme environments and knew I wanted to do a PhD delving into such. So, while I was working as a research technician at the University of Warwick, my then soon-to-be supervisor, Prof Hendrik Schäfer, was awarded a grant to take part in the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate expedition, or MOSAiC for short. I got in touch about the possibility of doing a PhD, and we submitted a PhD project proposal together for the NERC DTP: CENTA.
What would you say is the highlight of the research you are doing at the moment?
It is probably the highlight and a slight annoyance, but I keep finding lots of unexplained ‘oddities’. There are so many ways my research can go but as a third year I have, sadly, come to the realisation I will not be the person who finds out all the answers to these questions. I feel like I have raised a baby to find out that there was also a twin, a twin that someone else will have to raise. I cannot wait for the person who raises the next baby to realise that it was quadruplets…
Was there someone/ something or an event that inspired you to pursue a career in environmental microbiology?
Not particularly. I have never been good with being stuck behind a lab bench, computer or only working out in the field. I think that is why I love environmental microbiology as it gives you the opportunity to have as much variety as you want.
How have you found working through a pandemic? Has this affected your research?
It has been hard. Although, I have been quite ‘lucky’ that it happened during my first year. The restrictions to the lab and university did not prevent me from key experiments, yet it has limited a few of my aspirations for the PhD, such as field work. The uncertainty that the pandemic has brought has made planning quite difficult and I am still waiting on whether I will get a funded extension. However, the groups I am involved with have been unbelievably supportive and, hopefully, I can mitigate any serious damage, but I guess time will tell.
What are your plans after you complete your current research project?
I am leaning towards a post doc position outside of the U.K., but I have just under two years left to go on my PhD. So, I have put it more onto the backburner. Do get in contact if you know of anything available or want to have a chat (shameless plug).
Personally, I would like a move away from 16S taxonomic shifts, and inferring function from it, and using a mixture of model systems and sequencing techniques to delve into the complexity that we see in situ.
What would you like the environmental microbiology research field to become/ or have achieved in the next 10 or 20 years?
Personally, I would like a move away from 16S taxonomic shifts, and inferring function from it, and using a mixture of model systems and sequencing techniques to delve into the complexity that we see in situ. Especially with the diversity we have within the research field from permafrost to hydrothermal vents. We have started seeing this with recent papers using long reads metagenomics, but a lack of experimentally verified or databases designed for environmental context, leave many genes unidentified. Damn you, hypothetical proteins! Hopefully, creating systems within the lab that mimic the environments which we study would allow us to try tease out the how and why, which provide these organisms the ability to habit such hostile environments. This can help in verifying these hypotheticals and shed light on the full responses of these microorganisms that do so much.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to embark on a career in environmental research?
Get as much experience as you can, in and out of research. It is surprising the amount you learn and what you take with you regardless of the work experience you have. I worked in retail and hospitality before I started my first microbiology job and to my surprise, a lot of the skills are transferable; interacting with a variety of people, working in a fast-paced environment etc. etc. You will sometimes come out with more cons than pros, but it is building your CV to get to where you want to go. Get in contact with groups you are interested with and see if they have opportunities available. Be proactive!
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