Get to know the President: did I learn anything along the way?

Posted on August 17, 2020   by Professor Judith Armitage

In this blog, Judith Armitage, President of the Microbiology Society continues to reflect on her career and what she has learned during her time as an academic. This is a continuation of last week’s blog ‘How did I get here?’.

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© Judith Armitage

I was interviewed for a Lister Fellowship and a couple of other positions. I found that having a woman on the other side of the table transforms an interview. One interview by an all-male panel seemed more interested in how I combined experimental work and housework! The Lister interview, however, was very different. The Institute had only just folded and had a history of exceptional women scientists, including the wonderful Anne McLaren and Anne Warner. The interview panel seemed genuinely interested in my research. I can’t remember who the women on the panel were, but I remember them asking deep, penetrating questions with supportive smiles. Now, when I am tempted to groan at being asked to be on yet another interview panel, I remember how important it was for me to have a supportive female face on the other side of the table and say yes!

Gaining the Lister Fellowship led to the next stage of my career. I now had my own very small lab working on the new field of motility and chemotaxis and in the non-model bacterium Rhodobacter sphaeroides. I was making slow but steady progress, but with no one to talk to about the details and weird observations. Suddenly there was a Gordon Conference on sensory transduction in micro-organisms (GRC STIM) advertised in California. This was my first overseas conference and, after my experience in the UK, I was terrified. It was small, about 80 people and again, it was predominantly male, very competitive, and with a lot of discussion going on in the bar in the evening. I thought it was going to be a repeat of the UK meeting, until I realised there were some other women who, like me, were also starting in their careers and also a tad lost. We got together and discovered solidarity in numbers. That initial small group of young, unsure female scientists has expanded over the years. We have mainly been very successful, possibly because we have supported each other over the decades, over long distances. We will only physically meet once a year or so at a meeting, but that early bond is always there. We know that we can ask each other for unvarnished, unbiased advice and get it. We don’t compete, we support. The GRC STIM meeting is still going strong 40 years on, but is now larger and now very diverse and, I hope, feels open and welcoming to everyone.

After three years on the Lister Fellowship, a lectureship came up in Oxford for a microbiologist. I didn’t think I had a hope, but again I was encouraged by Pat – if I didn’t try, I certainly wouldn’t get it! I did get it and continued my work on R. sphaeroides motile behaviour. We kept finding things that didn’t fit the E. coli paradigm, and I kept being told that I was wrong, couldn’t do the experiments properly and so on. We knew the results were right. We know now that, unlike E. coli, many bacteria have more than one chemosensory pathway and many have one that is localised to the cytoplasm in addition to a membrane site. This cytoplasmic cluster piggy backs on the chromosome surface, ensuring that each daughter has both pathways after chromosome duplication and cell division. Unlike E. coli metabolism is also needed for some species to balance signals coming from the outside with intracellular metabolic state. I had shown early on that the flagellar motor of R. sphaeroides, could recover from a collapse in the motor driving force, the proton motive force, to swim again, but it could take minutes, suggesting that the motor structure had changed. With a, now long-time, collaborator in the Physics Department, Richard Berry, we set about looking at the motor structure using the very new total internal reflection fluorescence (TIRF) microscopy of labelled proteins. We were able to show that some of the key proteins of the rotary motor exchange with pools of proteins, even when the motor is spinning at 300 rps. Again, I was told our results must be an artefact of the new methods (a home built TIRF microscope and GFP labelling of a membrane protein). Now we know that many proteins in multiprotein complexes undergo dynamic exchange and this is often linked to function.

The above summarises the work of almost 40 years, over 40 graduate students and almost 40 postdocs! By sticking to the original advice given by Pat Clarke I went from often giving the final talk on the last day of a conference, or being in the corner left for those quirky topics that look interesting but aren’t main stream, to often giving the opening lecture. I was made a member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO), a Fellow of both the American and European Academies of Microbiology and, the icing on the cake, a Fellow of the Royal Society.

It might seem plain sailing, but I had a lot of rejected grants and papers along the way and a lot of sceptical reviews, which became more aggressive and personal as I became more established and successful. Like many who get to my position, I have moments when I don’t think I should be here, and there are people who think I shouldn’t be. I have had comments such as “If you can become an FRS, anyone can” and “It is only because they have quotas for women”. I do now believe they are wrong, and I have contributed a tiny amount to our understanding of how bacteria work, but it took time and a supportive peer group.

I also suffer from the guilt of a working mother. There was no official maternity leave and no university nursery when I had my two children, so I went back to work about 4 weeks after having my first baby, taking her with me before finding a local nanny-share. I missed out on first crawls, steps, words and school gate gossip; plus, the networks many mothers seem to form. However, my children tell me they had a happy, stable (if rather odd) upbringing, with both becoming scientists.

So what have I learnt over the years?

Follow your interest, not a fashion – it’s likely all the low hanging fruit has been picked. Create your own field.

Find a mentor. There are schemes to match young and senior academics, but if there is someone you feel might help, approach them directly. Remember, we were all in your position once.

Develop a peer group of like-minded, non-competitive (with you), internationally-based colleagues. You can forge friendships that last a lifetime, even if you only meet every couple of years at meetings. You won’t be lonely and will have someone to grizzle to when papers or grants get rejected!

Collaborate with someone who has a completely different skillset. Treat each other as equals and become more than the sum of the parts

Get yourself known. Put yourself forward for positions as they come up, particularly grant panels and society panels. On the other hand, be wary of dogsbody jobs in departments; find out how many were asked before you and what you will receive in return. As you become more senior, remember to give back. If you are a minority, remember how much it helps to have someone to relate to on any panel.

If you don’t apply for something you will never get it. You might not think you are ready but give it a go. If you don’t get it, don’t beat yourself up but learn from it and try for the next one.

Try any new technique going. Very often the developers of a new technique are looking for test cases; be that test case.

Balance everything with life and family, and remember every old, apparently successful person was once young, nervous and unsure of themselves. They (at least most!) remember and are happy to help – just ask!