Research (Civil Service)

Careers research

Professor Petra Oyston – research (Civil Service)

What is your current job title?

Principal Microbiologist.

What organisation do you work for?

Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).

What qualifications do you have?

BSc (Hons) Bacteriology and Virology, and a PhD.

What got you interested in microbiology?

During my A levels I was really lucky to have an inspirational biology teacher. She encouraged us to look beyond the syllabus, and this is how I came across microbiology. There was no microbiology component in our A level, as she had selected the Fresh Water Biology component instead of the microbiology unit... That was fun as it entailed lots of pond dipping and rooting around under rocks, but it was nowhere as interesting as microbiology.

What is your present occupation - what is it you do?

I am a civil servant, working in a government laboratory. Dstl’s role is to maximise the impact of science and technology for the defence and security of the UK. To this end, we work with a range of organisations around the world – from very small enterprises to world-class universities, defence companies, and other governments – to ensure that we can access the best possible knowledge, skills and technology. My research focuses on developing medical countermeasures against biothreat agents, with an emphasis on the intracellular bacterial pathogens Yersinia pestis and Francisella tularensis. Initially, the focus of my work was the development of vaccines to protect individuals in the event of a biological attack. This work is still ongoing, but there is an increased emphasis on medical treatments that can provide a protective effect against a wide range of organisms, rather than the specific immunity provided by vaccines. To this end, I am involved in research to characterise bacterial processes that can be targeted by new classes of antimicrobials.

Can you describe a typical working day?

There is no such thing as a 'typical working day'. We have flexible working, so even the length of the working day varies. I have a relatively low boredom threshold, so having a lot of variety in my day really suits me. I get to meet lots of people to discuss interesting projects, to develop junior scientists, and to make a difference: we can see how our work can actually save lives. So a typical day is busy, interesting and rewarding.

What do you like most/least about your job?

My favourite part of the job is coming up with new ideas for projects, firming up the plan with my collaborators and the team. I also love my commute: driving through country lanes across Salisbury Plain... Must be one of the best commutes in the country!

What I like least about my job is the misunderstanding of some people outside the organisation about what we do in defence research. I find it surprising how hostile people can be without being willing to find out what we actually do. I try and combat this by going out and talking about our work, ranging from conference and university seminars to schools and public engagement activities. I also ensure that my research is published in peer-reviewed journals.

What are the most important skills you need to do your job?

This is very much a team environment, so in addition to enjoying doing good and interesting science, you need to work well as part of a team. Many projects are quite multidisciplinary, so you need to be good at communicating with people who do not speak the same technical language as you. Having a productive network of collaborators is important, so skills in building productive relationships is also important. As you can end up presenting to diverse audiences, e.g. politicians or members of the armed forces, you need good presentation skills to explain your work to non-expert audiences, while at the same time you also need to be able to present competently to your peers at scientific conferences.

Is there anything you wish someone had told you about the job before you started?

I remember when I started I did not actually know what specific project I was going to work on: that would have been nice to know so I could do some preparation. As it was, I started out cloning a toxin gene from Clostridium perfringens, then expressed vaccine antigens in attenuated Salmonella, then moved into making mutants in Yersinia pestis, all within the first year. I think it was that variety of projects you could be asked to work on, meaning you have to be on top of the publications for a wide range of pathogens, that I had not expected. But it was a nice surprise!

Image: Thinkstock/iStock