I have been thinking a lot lately about ecosystems.  As a microbiology undergraduate at Warwick University I learned  that microorganisms largely do not exist as individual pure cultures in natural environments but rather as dynamic, complex, interacting communities, frequently benefiting from the presence of the others in the ecosystem.  These microbial ecosystems carry out many of the key processes of life on Earth, for example nutrient cycling, water purification, or within our bodies for example, our gut microbial ecosystems aiding food digestion and overall health.

I applied this to my own research, starting with my PhD.  At Warwick University an interdisciplinary research approach was emphasised right from the start – for my part using plant sciences, soil microbiology, biochemistry, physiology and biotechnology approaches to my research and I’ve broadened this further since then. A further benefit of ‘growing up’ as a researcher at Warwick was there was very much the attitude of ‘if you need something for your research then go and find a way to source it or raise the funds yourself’ and I have found these skills very useful.

I have been participating in the FEMS (Federation of European Microbiology Societies) meeting in Valencia in July and this meeting has brought together more than 2,500 from the international microbiology research community, forming an ecosystem, albeit of researchers. Research conferences play a key role in fostering the sharing of data, ideas and collaborations, so it was heartening to note that more than one third of attendees were early career scientists and from such a broad range of countries the researchers are working in. This diversity within the researcher ecosystem, from Australia, through South Korea and the Middle East; countries all over Europe to North America – is a highly unusual mix and this was reflected in the discussions, exchanges of ideas and exciting new collaborations that result.  I encourage early career researchers to break away from those researchers that they already know at the conference and strike up fresh discussions and make new acquaintances, as this can greatly benefit our research agendas and widen collaboration worldwide.

Such meetings remind us all of our own earlier career and what it felt like to be at your first few scientific meetings, happily FEMS seeks to support early career scientists to truly be part of the conference.  Undoubtedly too, attending conferences reminds us too of our love of our subject and for me the fascination of microbiology –  playing a key role in addressing many of the global challenges, for example the need for clean water, a safe food supply to feed a growing human population, microbes undertaking environmental biotechnology processes etc. The fascination certainly returned for me when some of the researchers reminded us of the shear scale of the microorganisms within our bodies, not solely in terms of numbers but that the combined microbial genome within our bodies is greatly in excess of our own human genome!

The FEMS biennial meeting in Valencia is my first since I was elected as the Vice President.  For me this means looking at the event through a different lens, one of considering how we can build on the good work of others, ensuring a ontinual healthy ecosystem of researchers, fostering a diversity of views and fresh ideas, to help us better use microbes towards resolving many of the global challenges and ensuring that we encourage the research ecosystem to keep working on the microbial ecosystems seems a great place to start.

More information about Professor Lappin-Scott and her work can be found at the following links:

Linkedin,  Swansea TedXTalk,  STEM ‘Pioneer’ Award 2017,  WISE Award 2016,  Womenspire Award 2017, Soapbox Science

July 12th, 2017

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