Women in Microbiology.

I am not a frequent reader or reviewer of non-fiction. For more regular and more insightful reviews of popular science books, follow the excellent Read More Science blog and Twitter account by Sarah Olson, champion of scientific literacy.

I am an avid reader and a professional scientist, but I very rarely read non-fiction in my free time. I prefer to spend my evenings, weekends, and the daily commute with novels and short story collections. And for some reason, I’ve always had a particularly strong aversion to reading biography, including biographies of people I genuinely admire. The only biographies I really remember reading and enjoying are Bossypants by my hero Tina Fey and We Need to Talk About Alan by my other hero, Alan Partridge.

“The human brain comprises 70% water, which means it’s a similar consistency to tofu. Picture that for a second – a blob of tofu the size and shape of a brain.” –That’s Alan, bringing the kind of insight you just won’t find in many ‘proper’ science books.

Having said that, to expand my horizons I’m now making a concerted effort to read more non-fiction, and particularly to read more popular science books. This is partly inspired by my own tentative attempts at writing popular science, but also by a desire to read more diverse accounts of life in science, to be better able to discuss matters of representation with my students.

Women in Microbiology

I recently completed Women in Microbiology, published by the American Society for Microbiology and edited by Rachel J Whitaker and Hazel A Barton. This is a collection of 34 short biographies of women who have worked within diverse fields of microbiological science over the past 100+ years, each pioneers in their own way. The essays are written by colleagues, friends, fans, and former students.

The microbiology I read for my work tends to lie within a very strict niche, so I had prior knowledge of very few of the women featured in this collection. As I research carbohydrate metabolism by Bacteroidetes bacteria, I was naturally most well acquainted with the work of Abigail A Salyers, the mother of microbiome research (Chapter 27). But I learned a lot from this book about Abigail the person, and all of the other amazing, inspirational women featured. Below is a short list of my favourite insights from Women in Microbiology, a collection I cannot recommend highly enough.

Sallie “Penny” Chisholm writes fun science books for young children

Professor Penny Chisholm researches and teaches on ecology and microbial oceanography at MIT’s Civil & Environmental Engineering department. She is a highly decorated scientist, and she has a passion for opening up scientific investigation to a wide audience. On her lab website, she shares detailed protocols on how to work with tricky Prochlorococcus marine cyanobacteria. But she also is the co-author of a series of children’s books about photosynthesis on land and in the oceans, and about how important the process of harvesting light energy is for all kinds of life on earth. The Sunlight Series, published between 2008 and 2017, is co-written by Penny Chisholm and Molly Bang, who has won several awards for her writing and illustrations.

Everyone has always had imposter syndrome: Diana Downs shows how to fight through it

Professor Diana Downs of the UGA Department of Microbiology studies the interconnectedness of microbial metabolic pathways, work that has implications for metabolic stress and fitness, and which encompasses all aspects of classical microbiology and cutting-edge bioinformatics. Not an easy topic to understand, let alone to master as Diana has. And yet, at the beginning of her career, Diana experienced many of the same doubts that myself and my academic friends are used to feeling. As a student, she made some highly novel observations about Salmonella induction and – because she was new to research – she assumed she must have made a mistake, mis-interpreted her data, gotten the wrong end of the stick. I had an exactly similar experience during my PhD; when a mutation I made to an enzyme introduced a new activity, I assumed that I had contaminated my protein prep with a different enzyme. I repeated the enzyme production and characterisation protocol probably five times before I took my observations to my supervisor. He then taught me to trust in my data, a lesson that Women in Microbiology says Diana has passed to all of her mentees.

According to the book, Diana has the following catchphrase, which I love: “If you do not have time to do it right, how are you going to have time to do it again?” This is a brilliant way to make the case for using deliberate practice in the lab, and taking the time to do things right, which is a lesson many students have to learn the hard way: rushing through a long and boring protocol can easily lead to mistakes, meaning everything has to be re-done anyway. In moments of high pressure or high ambition, we can be our own worst enemies if we try to hurry.

“I always stepped into the only suitable opening I could see on my horizon.” The inevitable success of Alice Catherine Evans

As one academic qualification leads to another, and one project or paper leads to another, it is sometimes easy to feel that one is being pulled through life, after inadvertently setting a course in motion many years before. It might be enough that you choose a particular science subject at A-level, and your high grades carry you in to studying a similar subject at university. Then maybe a lecturer offers you a position as a PhD student, then offers you a job as a post-doc, and before you know it you are on the tenure track somewhere, still studying that same subject you were good at when you were 17. It sometimes feels like we don’t make many active choices, more that we are pushed or pulled by success and failure that is largely dictated by the universal whim. I have felt this way at times over the past few years, and I feel lucky that I was able to stick it out and that I’m currently in a position that I enjoy, and where I feel I am more in control of my professional life.

I was quite deeply moved by the account in Women in Microbiology of the life and work of Alice Catherine Evans, a microbiologist who worked for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 1913. She discovered the link between the bacterium Bacillus abortus and the disease Brucellosis, and she was an early advocate for pasteurisation of milk, making enormously important contributions to food health and safety. She would go on to study influenza and Streptococcal disease, leaving her mark on healthcare as well.

Although the book notes that Alice “never declined an opportunity” it seems that she was rather often carried through life and her career by her innate skills and world events, rather than by making any specific ambitious decisions. After graduating with excellent marks from high school, Alice started to teach, because this was the only profession available to women. When she became intellectually bored she took up the offer of a free two-year course at the College of Agriculture in Cornell, and followed this with an education in Bacteriology, which was also offered tuition-free; at this point in her life, her poverty, rather than her gender, seems to have driven her to microbiology. After excelling yet again in her studies, Alice was offered a bacteriology scholarship at the University of Wisconsin (the first woman to hold one!), and so she found herself a highly educated 29 year old spinster working in bacterial research. This may have been the only path that had presented itself to Alice, but it was a path that would let her build a profoundly impactful scientific and feminist legacy.

After this, Alice returned to the USDA somewhat reluctantly, as it seemed “the only suitable opening,” and she made a big splash when the extant officials learned a lady scientist would be joining them. Alice is quoted as having said “I was on my way, where I had not wanted to go, and where I was not wanted.” Life carries us ever forwards.

Over the coming years, her many important findings on food safety, and especially her data showing that milk should be pasteurised, received a lot of pushback from male scientists and industrialists, but in a way Alice had the last laugh when World War I broke out, and most male scientists were drafted. Alice was swiftly recruited to what would become the National Institute of Health (NIH).

Over the coming years, her ideas about Brucellosis became widely accepted, leading to changes in federal law about the pasteurisation of milk and other food safety regulations. She was feted and decorated many times over the rest of her life, became a board member of several important national microbiological committees, and eventually established a study scholarship through the American Association of University Women, making her one of the earliest and most admirable female icons in the microbiological sciences. Alice believed clearly in gender equality (see the quote the end of this post), even giving lectures on how women should enter male-dominated careers, and she has been an inspiration to generations of ambitious female scientists hoping to make the kind of mark on the world that Alice did. And yet Alice herself appears to have moved very lightly through the world, always taking what felt like the only available path. She was gifted with intelligence and perseverance, and these attributes carried her an awfully long way.

Abigail Salyers, the mother of microbiome research, took her PhD in physics!

This was the chapter I was most looking forward to reading! Since the beginning of my PhD I have been investigating carbohydrate deconstruction by Bacteroidetes bacteria, often in the context of the Polysaccharide Utilisation Loci that Abigail discovered in the form of the archetypal Starch Utilisation System. Professor Abigail Salyers is considered by many to have been the mother of microbiome research – and yet at time of writing she doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry!?! Abigail was a powerhouse of microbiology, and her impact on much of modern microbiology, biochemistry, biotechnology, and biomedical science cannot be overstated. She worked in the very tricky area of anaerobic microbes, developing from scratch protocols to work with non-model microbes that she felt had been neglected for too long. In doing so, she expanded the field of microbiology itself, inspiring people to look and think beyond a few paradigmatic lab freak species. She discovered the pathways that allow our gut symbiotic bacteria to deconstruct and metabolise complex carbohydrates. She discovered mobile genetic elements that are responsible for the sharing of genes encoding carbohydrate degrading enzymes and antibiotic resistance proteins. She was one of the first to worry about the rising spread of anti-microbial resistance, and she was a fierce advocate for microbiology training, education, and public awareness. There is no doubt that she was foundational to the whole field…yet Abigail’s career began with a PhD in physics! In fact, her first academic position was as an assistant professor in physics at a college in Maryland. Just incredible.

Soil specialist Mary Firestone sent back her Truog Award when the certificate mis-gendered her

Professor Mary K Firestone is an expert in soil microbial ecology at UC Berkely’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. She had a passion for soil and for science from a very young age, and made her mark despite very limited institutional financial support by studying nitrogen and carbon cycles in the soil and rhizosphere, often using innovate new methods involving radionuclide labelling. In 1979, she was awarded the prestigious Emil Truog Soil Science Award. Touchingly, she had been nominated by her colleagues at Michigan State University where she started her career. Upon receiving the Truog award and certificate, it was noted that the dedication read “To Mary Firestone, for his excellent research in soil science”. The awards committee clearly expected that the winner would always be male! Supported by her advisor and his wife, as well as the rest of the faculty who had nominated Mary for the award in the first place, a complaint was made and a revised certificate was issued. Hopefully the certificate issuers double checked the gender of the award winner every year after this!

My favourite snippets from Women in Microbiology

Professor Michele Swanson, Department of Microbiology & Immunology at the University of Michigan’s Medical School: “You can’t be good at everything.” Take this as permission to give yourself a break!!

Professor Abigail Salyers, president of the American Society for Microbiology, mother of microbiome research, and the first woman granted tenure at the University of Illinois’s Microbiology Department: “I would work to minimise the fragmentation that has occurred within microbiology itself,…especially the rift between…environmental microbiologists and…clinical microbiologists….I believe that if we could forge these two areas into a single cohesive unit, we could become an almost unbeatable force in biology.

Professor Jane Gibson of Cornell University’s Section of Microbiology and one-time editor of the journal Applied & Environmental Microbiology: “No one cares how YOUR mind works.” Jane’s approach to work-life balance was “all work” and “all family” and by this account she sounds absolutely terrifying, but her methods were unquestionably effective.

Alice Catherine Evans, formerly of the US Department of Agriculture: “Women have proved that their mental capacity for scientific achievement is equal to that of men. [But] Women do not receive the same recognition as…men.” Plus ça change.

Professor Katrina J Edwards, formerly of  the University of Southern California: “It’s shocking….In the present day we know much, much more about space and the surface of other planetary bodies than we do about the inner space of our world.

Professor Nicole Dubillier of the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology: “I thought it would be perfect to be a postdoc forever…I never ever wanted to grow up.” #RelatableContent

Emeritus Professor Millicent Goldschmidt, formerly of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Texas: “I fell in love with the idea that as the same time we can’t live them and we can’t live without them.” I also love this awkwardly supportive quotation from Millicent’s uncle, which apparently convinced her father to allow her to go to graduate school: “Even though she’ll be a spinster*, at least she’ll be able to support herself.

*This was apparently guaranteed because, to quote her father, “No man is going to marry a woman with that much education.” Fair play.

So that was 2019.

I started this webpage in September 2019, so this will be my first ‘year in review’ post. Hopefully I can keep doing something similar in the years to come. But how to summarise a year of one’s professional life? And how much personal detail to discuss here, on what is ostensibly a science/work-focussed site? For a number of reasons, the personal and professional are strongly intertwined for me, defining and often directing each other. By all professional metrics – as I will discuss below – 2019 has been a banner year for me. I’ve worked harder than ever, I’ve achieved a lot, and I’m feeling genuinely hopeful for a fantastic year in research ahead. But this year followed the worst year of my life. I want to use this introduction to put my 2019 into context, context that would never be apparent from a simple list of accomplishments.

2018 for me was a wasteland. Let me start from the beginning. The day before Christmas Eve 2017, my paternal grandfather passed away. He was in his late-80s, and had been ill for a long time. He suffered from a range of health problems relating to miner’s lung, including severe asthma and emphysema. He lived at least ten years longer than doctors expected him to. So while it was obviously very sad to lose him – especially at Christmas time – it felt right, like things were happening in their natural order.

My grandfather’s death started a small existential panic for me, as he was my last surviving grandparent. This made my parents the oldest generation in my family. I am an only child, and neither of my parents have siblings either, so the family suddenly felt incredibly small, and I started to realise that within the next few years I would need to think very seriously about moving back to the UK to be closer to them when they were eventually old enough to need my help.

Unbelievably – and I mean that in the literal sense that I still struggle to believe that this really occurred – my Dad died on January 10th 2018. He was 66 years old, and he died three weeks after his 88 year-old father who had been unwell for years. My Dad was healthy, fit, and he took good care of himself. In fact, he was out on one of his weekly 8-mile walks in the wilds of Northumberland when it happened. He had had a routine cardiac check-up a couple of months earlier and was given a clean bill of health. But there was a sneaky clot hiding somewhere close by his heart, undetectable, and causing none of the classic warning symptoms such as dizziness, chest pain, shortness of breath, etc. One day the clot moved, and that was that.

My father was my everything. My whole world. I am finding the grieving process to be a very slow and heavy thing, and I am certainly not able to write about that yet. I mention this enormous loss here in this post on career achievements only because of the unpredictable effects it has had on my work. Most of 2018 is a blur for me, there are big gaps in my memory of the period, and my CV for that year is pretty thin. I achieved very little of note because I could barely concentrate. I didn’t publish much, I got no new grants, I didn’t supervise any of my own students. I was completely adrift in the world, and felt that nothing I did or said mattered in the slightest. When 2019 began, I can now with hindsight see that there was a marked shift in my behaviour. I didn’t make any conscious decision to change, but I started to work harder than ever before. And the result has been an extraordinary year, that will lead into an even more productive 2020. I’m immensely proud of what I accomplished this past year, but I’d give it all away in a heartbeat, if… .

Photo taken in 1985, the year I was born. My Dad the polymer coatings chemist is 34 years old in this picture, the same age I am as I write this caption. He is the handsome, smiling, dark-haired chap with the moustache and the brown tie, far right in the front row. My Dad worked in the research labs at Courtaulds, which became International Paints, which in turn is now part of the Akzo Nobel chemical empire. Dad developed new paint and coating technologies for ships, and was a key part of the team that developed InterPrime 198, which has sold over 75 million litres around the world.

2019: What have I done?

Popular* science writing

*’Popular’ in this case meaning for the general population, not necessarily meaning well liked.

Ever since university, I have “wanted to write”, whatever that means. As much as I love scientific research, I think my ideal would be to write all day every day. But I never had the guts to really give it a go until 2019, when I suppose I needed new challenges to keep me distracted from the aforementioned personal shit. In spring 2019 I jumped into the world of #scicomm by joining the scientific consortium over at Massive Science, and I am delighted to have now published 4 full-length articles and 4 shorter lab notes with them! It has been a lot of fun, and I’ve written about everything from environmental policy, to science communication tools, advances in medical biotechnology, and new biotech products that are already on the market. My most widely read and shared article for Massive Science was a short biography of the 17th century ecologist Maria Sibylla Merian, who turns out to have a pretty complex legacy. The piece that I found most fun to write was this one about cat arseholes. I never expected to use the phrase ‘anal sac’ in my career, but here we are.

Later in the year, as I felt more confident in my non-academic science writing (Thanks Massive!), I started to pitch ideas to other outlets. I intend to do this a lot more often in 2020, but so far I have published one piece in the Last Retort pages of Chemistry World, a periodical for the Royal Society of Chemistry. The article shows off about how we run our lab at KTH, where we strive to make sure everyone contributes a fair share to general upkeep efforts.

Of course I also started this webpage in 2019. I’m still not sure that I’ll use the blog feature very often, but I am certainly finding it useful to have this easily editable website to collect information about myself. Already a few people have written to me after finding this site to enquire about future collaboration or upcoming recruitment drives.

Academic writing

This year I have written three extensive reviews or book chapters on various subjects, two of which are now published and one that I expect to be submitted in early 2020 (pending contributions from co-authors…..project deadlines are so much easier to meet when I am the only person involved in the frickin project). I’m working on a few research articles that I also hope to submit early 2020, but it’s been nice this year to focus on deep dives into topics I’m passionate about – soil microbes (mostly bacteria), how and why they produce biomass-degrading enzymes, and how we can use those enzymes in industrial biotechnology. My plan is to write a short blog post about each of these reviews in the next few weeks, so stay tuned.

As always, if I publish an article in a scientific journal that you don’t have subscription access to, and you’d like to read my article, get in touch via email, Twitter, or ResearchGate, and I’m happy to share.

Teaching and supervision

An area of academic work that I really dove into this year was education. I am currently a lecturer on five master’s level courses at KTH and one at Stockholm University. Lectures at KTH are two-hour sessions where I teach for two 45 minute sessions, with a break in between. It takes me probably 4-5 days to prepare a new lecture from scratch, and I’ve delivered 12 new lectures this year. So you can see how long I’ve spent on teaching and class preparation. This is in addition to having two full-time master’s thesis students with me in the spring, three summer interns, and another master’s thesis student who started in September.

Although it has taken a huge amount of work, I’ve found my teaching this year to be incredibly rewarding. By contributing to a number of different courses on the KTH biotech master’s programmes, I’ve gotten to know a group of 15-20 students pretty well, and in fact 4 of them have asked me to supervise their master’s theses next year. (Actually 6 of them asked me, but I felt that would be too many students to supervise with care.) It is a great feeling to know that these students trust me and like me and my research topic well enough to want to spend half a year working with me!

The large amount of teaching and supervision I completed in 2019 has allowed me to apply for Docentship at KTH, and that application is progressing nicely. I will write a blog post about what Docentship means and how it is acquired in the new year, after I am interviewed by teachers and students about my pedagogic practice – eep!

Scientific research

Check out the page Research Projects for info on my current research interests and goals, and some relevant academic publications. My main focus this year has been bacterial, with members of the group looking at Bacillus and Chitinophaga as plant-protectors and biomass-degraders. Lots of data generated this year, and I can’t wait to share it all with you in 2020! I’m hoping for several research publications and a couple of conference presentations to showcase our work.

Something I’m especially proud of with my current projects and upcoming publications is how student-led my research is. I have had the great fortune of recruiting some truly exceptional research students into my group this year, most notably Anna and Zijia. They are both extremely hard-working young women, keen to learn new techniques, excited by research results, and dedicated to precision and reproducibility in their work. I feel privileged to have been able to supervise two such promising young scientists, and I hope I do their work justice in upcoming publications.

I had a run of great financial news at the end of the year, when I learned I’d been awarded two fairly substantial research grants from national councils in Sweden. This new money, coming in over the next 5 years, will let me work independently on topics I’m passionate about, and I’ll be able to recruit post-docs to get two exciting new projects started. I can’t wait!

What else?

According to GoodReads, I’ve read 54 books this year. According to Criticker, I’ve seen 92 movies. I’ve watched probably 100+ hours of YouTube, and I’ve also re-watched all seasons of Brooklyn 99, Green Wing, and Archer. I’ve tried my hand at pickling a dozen types of vegetable, and I got my hair dyed blonde for the first (and last) time. It’s almost like I’m trying to distract myself from something, who knows. Anyway, see you next year!

Walking by the River Tyne on a Christmas visit home, end of 2019. My Dad used to walk along the river a couple of times a week, and he knew all the best blackberry picking spots. Wow, I miss him.