An interview with Chris Proctor

March 2020

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© Chris Proctor

What is your role and area of research?

I am a final year PhD student at Ulster University, and I am not solely working on microbiology, although that is the majority of what I do! My work is split between the departments of microbiology and pharmacy. My research focuses on the use of biomolecules to inhibit biofilm formation by the chronic wound pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

The biomolecules I work with are a family of phytochemicals known as furanones. These are typically flavor and aroma compounds found in a range of marine and terrestrial plants, including seaweeds, strawberries, pineapple, coffee and cumin. The reason we are using these compounds is that they are structurally similar, to the signaling molecules that Pseudomonas uses to coordinate biofilm formation. We think these compounds might be able to prevent the bacterial cells from communicating, therefore preventing them from forming a biofilm. The other part of my research aims to develop a method to actually deliver these compounds to infected wounds.

Why is your research important?

A chronic wound is, in the simplest terms, any wound that fails to heal. Any wound has the potential to become chronic given the right circumstances. A number of things can cause a wound to become chronic including continued low-grade trauma to the area (e.g. pressure sores), localised hypoxia, like we see in vascular disease and autoimmune conditions. Having said that, one of the main causes of wounds not healing is infection.

When a wound gets infected, the invading organisms will primarily grow in the form of a biofilm. This biofilm then causes the wound to remain in an inflammatory state and thus, the wound can’t heal. While the wound itself is an unpleasant thing for a patient to experience, they also come with a host of complications and side effects like chronic pain, immobility, social isolation and mental health effects. Chronic wounds and their associated complications are a massive burden on the NHS and healthcare systems worldwide. They result in an annual spend of billions of pounds, so any effort to minimize the causes of chronic wounds is important to individual patients and to the NHS as a whole.

What are the challenges you face in your work and how do you try to overcome them?

Like any research there are a lot of challenges to face when working with wound pathogens. The main challenge that I, and I suspect, most researchers in this area face, is the fact that it’s actually quite difficult to model a human chronic wound.

Wounds are very complex things, and because of this complexity, they are really difficult to represent in a plastic dish. A wound environment has a blood supply – a unique nutrient profile – all sorts of inflammatory markers, or cytokines, and a certain amount of fluid flow in exuding wounds that you don’t get in a standard biofilm assay. To overcome this, I have been developing an easy to prepare wound model which can be used in place of a standard assay that tries to replicate the conditions as far as possible.

In a similar way, the difficultly in representing a wound is an issue for my pharmacy work as well. The drug release kinetics of our delivery system will be totally different in a laboratory experiment compared to a real wound. Again, we are combatting this by developing a more realistic model of drug release with which I can test my delivery system. Those working on the microbiology of infection and infectious diseases, will almost always have the issue of the applicability of their experiments to real world conditions. This is why outside the box thinking is really important for researchers working on these sorts of projects.

You ran a social media campaign for World Antibiotic Awareness Week 2019 – can you tell us more about that?

The social media campaign was a joint effort between myself and fellow Society champion, Amy Sterling. We decided that for World Antibiotic Awareness Week we could spread awareness of antimicrobial resistance and the importance of protecting antibiotics for the future, through our departments twitter page, using the hashtag #NICHEMicro. We designed seven eye-catching infographics which were posted over seven days, with the goal of raising public awareness surrounding AMR. Alongside the infographics, we also ran a competition in which entrants could complete a short quiz on antimicrobial resistance – the answers to which were contained within our tweets.

The prizes for the competition were funded by the Microbiology Society through the champions scheme, and so we were able to offer several amazon vouchers, Giant Microbes gift sets and popular science books on microbiology. Public engagement is important for all areas of science, but particularly so in areas such as microbiology, which affects everyone every day. Twitter is a really excellent resource to do this and gives individual scientists, laboratory groups and whole universities the ability to reach hundreds, if not thousands of people really easily.

The campaign was a total success and we had entrants and winners for the competition from as far afield as Canada. It’s a format we would definitely use again because it had such a broad reach and the quiz element encouraged people to engage with tweets and absorb the messages in the infographics – plus, who doesn’t love winning a cuddly microbe?! For full details on the campaign there is a blog post about it on the Society’s website written by Amy.

How are you finding your role as a Society Champion?

I have really enjoyed being a Society Champion so far. When I started, I was only just getting to grips with my PhD and I wasn’t sure how much I would be able to contribute, but the folks at the Society were so helpful. When I had an idea for an event, they were on board from the start, providing funds and promotional materials, and helping spread the word via their website and twitter pages.

If you are on the fence about becoming a Society Champion, I would strongly encourage you to go for it. Especially if you are from a university that doesn’t already have a champion like I was. Organising events for the Society has really helped expand my professional network as well. I have met people I would never have had the chance to meet without the scheme. For example, I have contacts who work to organise the Northern Ireland Science Festival each year, and have made connections with people who work for the Public Health Agency, all because I have organised events as a champion.

It extends beyond the Society as well. When people see you organise events for the Society, they associate you with that sort of activity, you are more likely to get invitations to work on other outreach events, and things can really snowball from there. The champions scheme has directly and indirectly helped me make the most of my PhD and I hope I can keep working with the Society for years to come.

You’ve also organised an outreach event to promote careers in STEM to school children. How did it go and why are such initiatives important?

“Life as an Antimicrobial Researcher” was the first event I organised as a Society champion, and it was a fairly ambitious one at that. The Northern Ireland Science Festival was coming up and I hadn’t been a champion for that long, but I wanted to get involved anyway.

The idea for the event came from a realization that when I was in school our teachers knew plenty about what it took to become a doctor, a lawyer, or a physiotherapist and what those jobs entailed, but they didn’t really know anything about what it was like to be a researcher, never mind a microbiology researcher. If they had been able to tell me about being a microbiologist when I was younger, I probably would have ended up in this career long before I actually did. So, I decided it would be an advantage to not only tell kids what it was like being a microbiology researcher, but let them have a go at it as well.

The event that I organized, gave groups of kids from local schools the chance to hear from real microbiologists and to have a go at some of the work that they actually do every day. I got several of my colleagues from all different disciplines together and we decided on what the pupils would be able to experience. Our colleagues from the Safe Water Project helped the kids build a working water filter to help reduce bacterial load in drinking water in developing nations. My colleagues from the pharmacy department let the pupils try and remove antibiotics from wastewater. The team from environmental science let the groups try their hand at some microscopy.

The kids were given a worksheet with some questions and this gave them the chance to win some of the really big Giant Microbes (funded by the Society). We were also able to hand out promotional materials for the Society and make the groups aware that there was a free membership level for the general public as well.

The feedback from the kids was that they loved the hands on experiments — and activities and the process of getting their lab coats and goggles on — and the teachers felt they benefitted from the talks as well because it was all new information they could pass on to future cohorts of pupils.

Organising the event was hard work and took a lot of management, but the response from the students and their teachers absolutely made it worthwhile. The Society was really supportive throughout the process and the funding they provided for the prizes really helped take the event up a notch. There is a blog post on the Society’s website with the full details and some images of the event. 

Why is it important to be a member of an organisation like the Microbiology Society?

Membership of Societies like the Microbiology Society is really important, especially for students like me. As most will know, research can be quite an isolating job. You’re often working on a very niche topic and it can sometimes seem like you are the only one who is interested in it.

Societies like the Microbiology Society do a great job of connecting researchers and organise meetings, conferences and forums to interact and minimize that isolation. The Society is also a great way for researchers to come together and discuss their area of research.

Early in my PhD I was using an unusual pharmaceutical technique for characterizing semi solid materials and as a microbiologist I was confident that, not only was nobody else using this, but nobody would even have heard of it. However, when I was attending the 2018 Microbes and Mucosal Surfaces Focused Meeting in Dublin, I met a researcher, who not only worked with the same technique in his PhD, but is currently working with the technique as an established researcher. I was able to pick his brain and ultimately resolve some of the issues I was having with the technique. This is an interaction I would never have had if I wasn’t a member of the Society, so membership of societies like these have both obvious benefits and benefits that you couldn’t predict even if you tried!

Why does microbiology matter?

As I said before, microbiology impacts everyone every day, and that is why it is important. There is the obvious stuff like medical microbiologists, who strive to understand how infections are caused and how we can treat them. Environmental microbiologists know the importance of understanding how micro-organisms impact things like crop yields and how antimicrobial resistance is spread in the environment. Microbial biotechnologists help us to produce a range of products and engineer things like medications on massive scales. Food microbiologists let us have things like bread and beer and other fermented foods, as well as making sure our foods don’t have to many micro-organisms and make us sick.

There is also research going on into the use of bacteria in renewable energy and the production of advanced materials like graphene. You would have a hard time finding an aspect of life that isn’t impacted on by microbiology. That is why microbiology is important.

If you are a member of the Society and would like to find out more about how you can get involved with Society activities and/or showcase your research, please email us at [email protected].