50 years of FEMS: a Q&A with Bethan Roberts

Posted on January 10, 2024   by Microbiology Society

2024 marks the 50th anniversary of the Federation of European Microbiological Societies (FEMS). To celebrate the long-standing association between FEMS and the Microbiology Society since the founding of FEMS in 1974, we spoke to our members to find out their experiences of working with FEMS.

The first Q&A is with Bethan Roberts from the University of Nottingham, UK, who, through her membership to the Microbiology Society, benefitted from a FEMS grant. 

FEMS Blog Bethan Roberts.jpg

Could you introduce yourself and your scientific interests?

I am a second-year student at the University of Nottingham, UK, studying a PhD in Molecular Microbiology. My education and scientific working experience to date has been based in the UK. I completed my undergraduate degree in Human Biosciences at the University of Plymouth and an MSc in Clinical and Molecular Microbiology at the University of Nottingham. I have also worked as a laboratory technician and was based in a COVID-testing laboratory for 1 year. My scientific interests revolve around microbiology and more specifically are based around understanding biofilm formation and the impact this has on bacterial cells. I am interested in studying biofilms from both a mono-species and polymicrobial standpoint to further our understanding of this adaptive phenomena and the impact it has on treating bacterial infections. I believe with understanding comes plans and actions on how to best prevent antibiotic tolerance and resistance which, currently, is going to be a massive problem in the future.

Could you describe your research training visit? 

I visited the prestigious Costerton Biofilm Centre (CBC) at Copenhagen University, Denmark, for 2 months to establish a polymicrobial SCW infection model amenable to mapping the levels of protein production and activity within it. Emulation of a more indicative chronic wound infection, will shed light on the function of specific proteins, plus providing insight into the mechanism of biofilm formation within a chronic wound. During the research visit I was able to study the SCW model developed at the CBC, and through optimisation of the model for my specific needs, enabling it to be used to study protein function through assays, colony forming units, microscopy, and environmental sensors. This has furthered my research into the effect specific proteins play in dual species chronic wounds. The research visit also greatly improved my professional development by allowing me to experience another research laboratory, and also by greatly increased my networking skills through exposure to renowned international scientist who visited the CBC, providing invaluable professional links for my future research and career.

Why did you apply for a FEMs grant?

FEMs provided a grant which would perfectly support my research visit. The grant allowed for the prolonged visit to the lab in Copenhagen who are experts in the biofilm model vital to my research. Through this visit, I was able to gain invaluable expertise into the development of the biofilm model and access equipment not readily available in my home lab like the oxygen and pH probes. This allowed my science to develop in ways not initially available to me. From this visit, the knowledge gained has been transferred to my home lab, as well as providing the insight and data needed for a chapter of my PhD thesis. The grant provided a suitable amount of money to allow the research visit to occur and as the money was provided upfront this was ideal as I am a self-funded student and so reimbursed grants can be harder to logistically plan. From research I realised I was part of one of the supported societies (The Microbiology Society) and so eligible to apply for funding for the proposed research visit.

What did you want to achieve with this grant, and did you succeed?

The aim of the research visit was to establish a polymicrobial SCW infection model amenable to mapping the levels of AaaA production and activity within it. The collagen based SCW model developed in Copenhagen was successfully studied and optimised to allow the activity of AaaA to be tracked in dual species biofilms. This has allowed research to start exploring the effect AaaA plays in a dual species chronic wound using both laboratory and clinical isolate strains. I was able to succeed with the aims of the research visit as well as develop the research ideas further which can be continued in my home laboratory.

What opportunities did the grant give you?

From a research point of view, the research visit provided the expertise needed for me to develop a polymicrobial chronic wound model in which to study the role of AaaA. This has created a chapter on model development in my PhD thesis and the data to complete a scientific manuscript which will be published in a leading international journal describing the function and regulation of AaaA during chronic infections. The research visit also greatly improved my professional development by allowing me to gain an insight into another type of academic laboratory, and the working practices, based in another country. Through this my skills, both professional and personal, have further developed. The collaboration between the institutes in Nottingham and Copenhagen has greatly increased my networking skills, along with broadening my view and approach to interdisciplinary scientific research. Due to the prominent position the host laboratory has in biofilm research, I was able to meet and attend seminars from many academics from around the globe who have dedicated their career to biofilm research. As a result, my understanding into biofilms and my professional network has greatly increased in size.

Did you know about FEMs before applying to the grant?

I did not know about FEMs before I applied to the grant. My supervisor at my home laboratory raised awareness of the organisation and the grants offered to students. Through further research I realised I was part of one of the supported societies (the Microbiology Society) and so eligible to apply for funding for the proposed research visit.

How can FEMs continue to contribute to your career and scientific development?

 As my career progresses, it is likely that there will be an ongoing need for collaborative input into the research. Further research visit funding would enable flexible and timely secondments in labs that offer specific expertise or equipment to overcome experimental barriers or provide opportunities for novel investigations through fusion of resources/ideas. A suite of grants to cover the different career stages would enable this. FEMS already hosts international conferences that provide a platform to share my research findings to support both my career and scientific development by giving opportunities for further networking and collaboration. Associated travel grant funding to attend these would make attendance more achievable. FEMS journals also offer a means to share research and evidence progress, support from editorial teams to navigate through this would be valuable. To enable the development of independence, opportunities to become involved in conference delivery through supported co-chairing would be attractive, as would microbiology-centred mentoring.