An interview with Stephanie Diezmann

June 2020

Dr Stephanie Diezmann is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol, and a member of the Microbiology Society. In this interview, she tells us more about her research which focuses on Candida albicans, which causes a wide spectrum of disease in humans.

Stephanie Diezmann
© Stephanie Diezmann

Tell us about your research

Fungi kill as many patients as malaria or tuberculosis, but while the public is acutely aware of the threats posed by bacteria, parasites, and now viruses; fungi are considered the hidden killers.

We study one of the leading human fungal pathogens, Candida albicans, which causes a wide spectrum of disease in humans, ranging from oral thrush and vaginitis to life-threatening systemic infections, with mortality rates of up to 75%.

These infections are difficult to treat because availability of antifungal drugs is severely limited, since fungi are our closest relatives and fungi are experts in evolving drug resistance. We approach this problem from two directions. Firstly, we study a heat shock protein (Hsp90) that plays an important role in the regulation of fungal virulence. By understanding how Hsp90 is regulated and how it governs virulence, we hope to identify ‘points of fragility’ worth targeting. Secondly, we screen soil bacteria, which produce potent antibiotics, cancer drugs and immunosuppressants, for compounds active against the leading yeast pathogens, including C. albicans, Cryptococcus neoformans and the emergent multi-drug resistant Candida auris.

Understanding the biological principles of virulence in combination with a promising drug screen, will hopefully allow us in the future to contribute to a reduction in mortality rates associated with fungal infections.

What qualifications did you obtain before starting this role?

I came to my current position via professional training as a laboratory technician at Charité University Hospital in Berlin, an undergraduate degree in Biology from Humboldt University – also in Berlin – and a PhD from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, USA. Upon completing my PhD, I did a postdoc at the University of Toronto and then moved to the University of Bath for my first academic appointment as a Prize Fellow. After five years at Bath, I moved to the University of Bristol where I am now a senior lecturer.

What are the professional challenges that present themselves and how do you try to overcome them?

There are many, and I try to tackle them step-by-step rather than in one big chunk. I constantly feel like I do not ever have enough time for anything. To address this, I book a couple of hours in my calendar for a specific project and then I use ‘Pomodoro’ to get it done. I find it hard to keep up with literature, so I follow relevant journals and scientists on twitter, whose 280 characters can be easier to digest and do a pretty good job in keeping me up to date.

Being the only medical mycologist in Bristol can be challenging, but having colleagues with diverse interests is enriching my research portfolio, by bringing applications and techniques into the fungal fold that I had not previously considered, or thought possible.

What is a typical working day for you?

I am an early bird and I am usually in the office by 8am. This is also where I spend a large part of my working day. I write papers, prepare lectures, talk to collaborators, mark students’ work, meet with students to discuss their work, review other scientists’ papers and grants, read the literature, and use my two white boards to develop new research ideas. I also try to play in the lab. My ‘pet’ project keeps me entertained and in touch with lab life more or less.

Tell us about your biggest professional achievement(s) so far.

In general, becoming a Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol. I am the only one of my maternal grandmother’s ten grand children to go to high school, finish university and get a PhD. Not only that, I grew up in East Berlin and was not permitted to go to high school, because I did not participate in the ruling party’s youth organisations. Luckily the wall came down just in time for me to go to high school. So, being an academic is huge for me.

If I had to name one specific professional achievement it would be being the recipient of the Young Investigator Award from the International Society for Human and Animal Mycology (ISHAM). I received the award at the ISHAM meeting in Berlin, in the exact same building where the communists held their youth rituals. I did not participate then but many years later, I gave my award lecture there and it filled me with immense gratitude for the opportunities I was given.

I also consider my postdocs and students moving on to successful careers inside and outside of academia an achievement. It makes me proud to see them move on to the next step.

You are an active member of the Microbiology Society, tell us more about your involvement.

At this point, unfortunately very little. When I moved to the UK, I was busy setting up my lab, then came maternity leave and a new position. Now, however, I am looking for ways to get involved beyond attending the Annual Conference.

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

For a couple of reasons. For one, being part of a community provides a sense of belonging. Also, the Society provides excellent career, outreach and education resources.

Where did your interest in microbiology come from?

When training as a laboratory technician, I was assigned to the laboratory of Dr Gabriele Schönian at Charité University Hospital. Gabi, who is retired now, worked on Candida and Leishmania. She was a wonderful mentor and very supportive during my early career. Her lab was in the same building where Robert Koch gave his first lecture on the discovery of Mycobacterium tuberculosis to the Physiological Society of Berlin. Gabi’s influence, and the decades old swan neck bottle that remained sterile, sparked my interest in microbiology.

Why does microbiology matter?

Microbiology affects everyday life in a lot of different ways, from the mundane to the extraordinary. Lactobacilli turning milk sour, bacteria and yeast producing foods, moulds growing in the International Space Station, crops feeding millions being lost to bacterial and fungal plant pathogens, and now, Covid-19 have turned our world upside down.

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].