An interview with Dr Chloe James

January 2020

Dr Chloe James is Senior Lecturer at the University of Salford, Manchester. She is a member of the Microbiology Society and co-Chair of Impact and Influence Committee. Her research focuses on bacteria and bacteriophages in multi-species biofilms and this interview she tells us more about why she chose to be a microbiologist and about the Society's Shadowing Scheme.

Dr Chloe James
© Chloe James

Tell us more about your research.

I am a Senior Lecturer in Medical Microbiology, so I teach at all levels from undergraduates, right the way up to master’s level. I also run a series of modules.

Why did you choose to be a microbiologist?

I’ve always loved nature – biology was my favourite subject at school – but it was my next-door neighbour that really got me into microbiology. When I was 13, he was working at the School of Tropical Medicine in Liverpool and he just seemed to have a really exciting life, I thought. He was always travelling to far-off places and bringing back insects, and although I didn’t really understand exactly what he was doing, I knew he was working on trying to understand how disease spreads, so I really thought that is what I wanted to do. I did some work experience at the School of Tropical Medicine and every day was different, which I found really exciting…and I still do!

Why does microbiology matter?

Pick up a newspaper on any day and there are microbiology stories there. The field has always been incredibly relevant and if you look at any niche on the planet or even other planets usually it’s micro-organisms that are at the bottom of any process. Micro-organisms began life, they were the first forms of life. I think it’s actually more challenging to ask me to think of an instance where microbiology doesn’t matter, as micro-organisms are just so integral in every aspect of life. It feels more and more, that an understanding of microbiology is needed to maintain the health of human and animal populations.

Take the human body as a particular niche, there are hundreds of species there that are absolutely fundamental to the health of a human. There are a very tiny number of micro-organisms that cause disease, and so, in that field, there are so many applications and so much there that we have not yet exploited for our benefit and the benefit of the planet.

Why is it important to a member of an organisation such as the Microbiology Society?

I have been a member of the Microbiology Society since my PhD days and all the way through I felt very supported, going to conferences every year but also there being this network of people that understand what you're excited about and why you are excited about it. I think the online resources are fantastic, for both research and teaching activities, and I think there are just so many things that can be useful for people at all career stages.

Being part of the Society makes me feel connected to people across the country, but also across the world. It makes my work and my interests feel so much broader and more relevant. They also offer a wide variety of grants that I have benefitted from, as well and I think that it is a very inclusive Society. For anyone wanting to stay in a career in a specialist area, being a member of one of these societies is very important.

How did you find the Council Committee’s Shadowing Scheme?

I really enjoyed the Shadowing Scheme. I didn’t really know what to expect and I think a lot of people love the work that the Society does, but don’t really understand where that comes from and how that is built. I feel like I have benefited so much from the Society that once I got my lectureship and my career, it was my turn to give something back. The scheme also came at a time where there were a lot of noises from politicians about the mistrust of experts and I’d seen that the Society had been talking to the government about the microbiome. I thought, "this is really a chance for me to be more relevant on a national scale".

I was interested in the Microbiology Society and ready to take on a more active role, but didn’t really know where to start, and how much of my time it would take up and what it involved. So, when I saw the Shadowing Scheme, I thought it was a no-brainer really. It was a great opportunity to dip my toe in and see what the Society was about, and in 2017 I went and sat in on a Council meeting and straight away everybody was very friendly, I felt really welcomed; I felt comfortable straight away.

What advice would you give to somebody who was thinking of joining the Society?

Go for it! There is absolutely nothing to lose. Everybody in the Society is really helpful and the people who work full-time are fantastic at their jobs and make you feel really welcome. There is no strict structure, so you are quite free to get, from the Shadowing Scheme, whatever it is that you want, and I do feel there is a lot of freedom of movement and that everybody is really approachable. Even if you are not sure about joining the Shadowing Scheme, you can drop somebody from the Society an email and they will answer any questions you may have.

As incoming Chair of the Communications Committee, can you tell us a little bit more about what you want to achieve?

After joining the Shadowing Scheme, that gave me the confidence to put myself forward for the Committee and I am very excited about becoming Chair. I was elected as Chair-Elect, so I have been shadowing Nicola Stonehouse for a year, who has been a fantastic Chair and I have learned a lot from her. We have lots of exciting things coming up this year with the 75th anniversary, so moving forward, it will be a job to ensure that our activities remain relevant, on point and inclusive.

The world of publishing has evolved, and we will be looking at how different digital technologies and forms of communication can be rolled out. I’m excited to see which platforms are going to come out over the next few years.

Why is it important to communicate science with the general public?

I think it is crucial to communicate science with the general public. It is pointless sitting in our ivory labs if we do not talk to the community about what we are doing. What has been great about public engagement has been the conversations that you have with people and their feedback and their knowledge really helps you to think about what you are doing. I see public engagement as working together with lots of different people, and it’s always lots of fun as well!

What are some of the challenges of putting those public engagement activities together?

Public engagement activities for academics are really difficult because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of time allocated to the activity. It’s also sometimes challenging to get a hold of funds to host the activity. I have been really lucky in that the University of Salford have been very supportive of me doing this work, but I am also very strong willed in that I really enjoy these events and think they are important. The Society has also been brilliant and through the Champions Scheme I have been able to access funds that have supported a lot of access to our work.

Have you got any exciting activities coming up?

We were approached by the British Library to bring our very popular (bio)selfies down to London this year. We are also hoping to attend the Big Bang Festival, watch this space for more!

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].