Bishop Stopford’s School, Enfield (1983-1990) and the University of Plymouth (1990-1993, 2007-2011)
9 GCSE’s, 3 A-levels, a BSc. (Hons) in Biological Sciences, and a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) in Microbiology.
In a Forensic Science Lab, in a public aquarium, and in
I am a ‘post-doctoral’ research scientist in microbiology
Favourite thing to do in my job: I really enjoy talking about science and teaching/ working with students- they always have lots of interesting questions!
I am a microbiologist who is interested in how dangerous bacteria survive in aquatic environments (water)
I’ve been a microbiologist for quite a few years now, so its hard to know where to start!
I first started as a technician here at Plymouth university, helping students with their work and preparing materials for classes. Whilst I was doing that, I’d occasionally get involved in research projects- for example, one summer I spent looking at bacteria that live on spiders (luckily i dont mind them!)! I decided I really enjoyed this side of science, and after a few years I got the chance to do a PhD (doctor of Philosophy) in microbiology- it was very hard work, but I really enjoyed it and found it very rewarding, although to be honest I didn’t get paid a lot! For 4 years, I did research looking at pathogenic (dangerous) bacteria that live in hospital water taps and worked alongside a company that makes and sells this kind of thing to hospitals/ hotels etc. It might sound like a strange thing to study, but lots of bacteria actually choose to live in taps and water systems, and they do this by forming a biofilm, such as the one I’ve shown here:
The bacteria in this picture are about two millionths of a metre long! Biofilms are communities of bacteria- the bacteria can communicate and are kept safe because they produce a kind of slime that helps them stick to things- a kind of bacterial snot if you like! The reason people are interested in them is because biofilms can provide shelter to dangerous bacteria- if this happens in a hospital water system, then the bugs can potentially spread and infect patients.
As well as this work, I also spend a lot of my time helping students who are doing research projects as part of their first degree. I love this part as I love working with students. For example, two of my most recent students have been looking at bacteria that infect rainbow trout, and how using probiotics (kinds of good bacteria- a bit like fishy Yakult) can help reduce the infections that these bacteria cause, and actually help the fish to grow better. This is useful for fish farmers who grow and supply fish to supermarket chains. I’ve included a photo of some rainbow trout, so that you can get an idea of how they are kept in a laboratory aquarium- very different to a fish tank at home!
The thing that I like most about my work is that it has useful applications and will hopefully benefit society in some way.
My Typical Day
In a typical day I will check on the progress of my experiments, discuss with other scientists about our research and try to meet with my students to see how their work is going (maybe stopping for lunch in the middle!)
I don’t really have a typical day! It very much depends on whether I have an experiment running at the time. When i arrive at work I will normally reply to any urgent emails, before making my way over to the laboratory to talk to the microbiology technician about the work which is being done in the lab on that day. Then its time to put the labcoat on (essential when working with potentially dangerous microbes) and do some work ‘at the bench’. This picture is of me working on a ‘test rig’. I designed this equipment to simulate an everyday water system- it has taps, a water tank, a water heater etc.- so that I can study how bacteria form biofilms in the pipe, and find out more about how and why they do this. I might do this by growing the bacteria in a Petri dish, for example, and then try and identify them: .
If I am working in the aquarium I will discuss with my colleagues how the experiment is going: . Quite often this will involve everyday care, such as feeding and weighing the fish- it depends on the experiment and what we want to investigate. sometimes we might want to look at how they are growing, other times we may also be interested in their health and can investigate this by, for example, taking blood samples and looking at the bacteria that are living in and on the fish.
During the day, I will often have at least one meeting as well, to discuss future projects. There is always some work to do on the computer as well, because whatever you do, you have to write about it! This is o that people can learn from your results, and it is a very important part of a scientist’s job. I am lucky to have travelled to lots of places around the world with my job, meeting other scientists and swapping ideas.
I can work very long hours sometimes, but I am lucky in that my hours are quite flexible. Sometimes I may have to work very long days, but I am always able to have a few short ones to make up for it!
What I'd do with the prize money
I would use the money to organise a day when schoolchildren could come in and learn how to use some of the amazing microscopes we have here.
My office is in the university’s Electron Microscopy Centre. I am also in charge of our confocal laser scanning microscope, which uses lasers instead of white light to look at things, so it would be great to organise a ‘Microscopy Day’ here, where local schoolchildren could come in, have a guided tour of our labs, learn about the different microscope types, and have a chance to have a go on them. Depending on the microscope, the students would be able to prepare their own samples before they looked at them- messy but interesting and fun!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
sociable, inquisitive and hard-working
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the world
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
David Attenborough- he is an amazing guy!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
A liitle bit- a few detentions but that’s it
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
I’d probably be a TV presenter, presenting wildlife programs
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
a parachute jump
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
good health (no nasty bugs!), enough money to keep my family secure, and to learn to dive.
Tell us a joke.
Q- What do you call a deer with no eyes? , A- no eye-deer!