Post-Doc in North America

As someone in their ‘more senior years’ as an academic, I get asked to tell ‘my story’ about how I got from being a girl growing up in Middlesbrough to a Professor of Microbiology and Senior Pro-Vice Chancellor.  This post covers how and why I moved to North America for a Post Doc and how this opened up opportunities for me and enabled me to get a faculty position at Exeter University three years later.

After my PhD at Warwick University I had a first post-Doctoral position at the Institute for Biotechnological Studies in London.  The funding was running out for that three year post and I needed to secure a job fast.  I had attended my first international conference near Copenhagen a few months earlier and had given my first talk at an international conference – but more about that experience in a later blog posting! I started to understand the benefits of networking at conferences in developing research and career opportunities so I submitted an abstract for the forthcoming ISME4 meeting in Ljubljana in August 1986.  As for my first international meeting I went alone and had to raise the funding to go myself.

The flight to the ISME 4 meeting was delayed for many hours so all passengers were ushered into a room to wait (yes this was a different era in flying!)  It was crowded so I had to share a table and sat next to a seemingly nice couple from North America.  I quickly learned they were Bill and Vivian Costerton, and were Canadians.  Bill was a leading figure in microbial ecology (whom I had never hear of before) how his research covered many, many diverse areas including petroleum microbiology and within 30 minutes he had offered me a post-doc working on microbes in petroleum reservoirs!

He took out a small card and drew out a schematic of the subsurface environment (I later learned that this is how he always worked in research discussions). He sketched out how this seemingly hostile environment was merely a combination of challenges for bacteria but some survived this high temperature, lack of oxygen, salty, high pressure, low nutrient combination, could grow within rocks (I found that concept utterly fascinating) and that some of their growth byproducts were a nuisance and spoiled the quality of the oil.  This meant that many international oil and gas companies were interested in bacteria and sometimes funding such work – and so I started working in petroleum microbiology, bacterial growth on surfaces (biofilms) and the much broader field of microbial ecology.

I really didn’t follow a lot of what Bill was saying but I needed my next research job so I listened and agreed to meet him once the conference was underway. Eventually the flight landed in Ljubljana in the early hours of the morning, then the bus taking us to our hotels broke down in the country lanes but as we were all going to the same conference I had chance to meet and get to know some of them.

The next day I set off to the conference centre but inadvertently stood on the wrong side of the road and, as I couldn’t understand the language, caught the wrong bus and ended up in the outskirts of the city with just me and the bus driver looking at each other.  He stopped there for a few minutes, then luckily for me, drove back into the city and I found the conference centre.

I attended the opening ceremony and watched the ISME President cross the stage and open the conference, little knowing that I would become the President of the Society and play that same role in Cairns 22 years later. I met Bill Costerton and he commenced the paperwork to formally offer me a post Doctoral research fellowship in his huge laboratory group at Calgary University.

I moved there a few months later and took on running part of his research group, broadening my skills and learning how to work with businesses too. Some aspects were very challenging, such as when you have to walk into a room full of engineers, geologists, chemists, mathematical modellers etc and put across our latest research ideas and progress to such an interdisciplinary audience. I learned that it’s about keeping calm when, for example, Darcys, turbulent flow, catholic protection, metal corrosion or oil souring were being discussed and read up on it fast later. We took some new concepts of how bacteria might aid oil recovery and scaled this up from small rock cores into large 3-D reservoir models, pulling in bacteria survival mechanisms and biofilm studies too. All of this helped me to prepare my first faculty applications and led to a job interview at Exeter University.  I was the only female shortlisted but was thrilled to be offered and then accept this in 1989, joining Exeter in 1990, ready for my next adventure!

 

 

December 11th, 2017

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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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