An interview with Dr Rachel Exley

Rachel Exley is a research scientist at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology (University of Oxford, UK). She is also a member of the Microbiology Society’s Communications Committee and representative on the Microbiology in Schools Advisory Committee (MiSAC). In this interview Rachel tells us why she joined the Society, gives us an insight into the work she is carrying out with MiSAC and how, by attending and representing the Society at the e-Bug 10 year anniversary conference she managed to facilitate a new E-bug partnership with the Ukraine.

Tell us a little about your current role.

I am a research scientist based at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology (University of Oxford, UK). I currently supervise a small team and we study the interactions of different Neisseria species and the specific mechanisms by which bacteria colonise the human body. I also teach microbiology to undergraduate medical students and am involved in science outreach activities to inspire and engage local primary school children.

Alongside this, I am also a member of the Microbiology Society’s Communications Committee and a representative on the Microbiology in Schools Advisory Committee (MiSAC).

Why did you join the Microbiology Society?

I have always felt it is important to support the field of microbiology in the UK, and I think the Society does great work. I value the Society’s aims to further research, training, and public understanding of this scientific area, and its efforts in advocacy.

Joining the Microbiology Society has given me access to numerous resources and events such as the including annual meetings, which bring together our community and allow attendees to keep up to date with the latest developments. Furthermore, a range of grants are available to members, and I have benefited from these to support some of my outreach work. One of the best things about the Society is that it provides opportunities for its members to engage in a variety of activities. For me, the Society is inclusive and supports the field of microbiology, in particular early career microbiologists. This has a positive effect on microbiology both nationally and internationally.

Tell us a little more about your role on the ‘Microbiology in Schools Advisory Committee’

The Microbiology in Schools Advisory Committee (MiSAC) is a registered charity formed in 1969 to promote the teaching of microbiology in schools and colleges. Its members are experts in microbiology and education and include representatives from the six organisations which sponsor its activities. Recognised as an authority on microbiology safety in schools, MiSAC liaises with science advisors such as CLEAPSS, The Association for Science Education (ASE) and The Scottish Schools Education Research Centre (SSERC) and responds to enquiries from schools as well as developing teaching resources for practical activities.

Since joining MiSAC in March 2018 I have been involved in a number of activities. For example, I helped develop the topic for the 31st Annual MiSAC competition for secondary school students. The aim of the competition was to enhance understanding and interest in microbiology by encouraging students to explore beyond the curriculum. This year the requirement was to produce a poster on “How microbes help farming”. I have also been fortunate enough to be co-editor of a series of scientific articles written by experts, including past and present Presidents of the Society, to commemorate this year’s 50th Anniversary of MiSAC. The articles are written for secondary school teachers and students but are also of interest to a wider audience as they cover a wide and interesting range of microbiology topics. Other MiSAC activities in the pipeline which I am involved in include a microscopy workshop for teachers and technicians and presentations at the next ASE Annual Conference.

What do you think you can contribute to MiSAC as a Microbiology Society member?

I hope to make useful contributions to and provide ideas for current and future MiSAC activities. So far, I have facilitated communication between expert Microbiology Society members and educational advisors to answer microbiology related queries from science teachers.

I am particularly keen to promote awareness of microbes and microbiology to younger age groups, to help them understand that there is an incredible, invisible world to discover, and that microbes are not all bad, but many have important and beneficial roles.

With the current advances in our understanding of the microbiome and its potential impact on health and disease, as well as the threat of anti-microbial resistance, I think it is important that children grasp the importance of microorganisms and microbiology from an early age. I am currently working with MISAC to update some of the Society’s online guidance and teaching documents for secondary schools and create new ones. I would really like to extend my experience with primary schools by working with Microbiology Society and MiSAC to promote and provide resources for those schools, and to facilitate links between them and professional microbiologists. The knowledge and experience of the members of MiSAC coupled with access to a large Microbiology Society membership with diverse expertise puts me in a strong position to be able to achieve this.

How can other Microbiology Society members get involved with outreach activities?

I would encourage Microbiology Society members to think about creating resources or activities for primary schools. It would be great if, as a community, we can put together a collection of microbiology resources that complement existing schemes such as e-bug or Cholera and the Thames. These could benefit from advice provided by MiSAC members who have expertise in teaching and using safe practical activities in schools and be made available to teachers via their websites.  It would also be great if members could help advertise and inform schools in their area about the MiSAC Anniversary Articles and the annual competitions.

In what other ways are you involved with the Society’s activities?

As a member of the Communications Committee I attend various meetings, including the Microbiology Today Editorial Board. In this role, I have the opportunity to contribute ideas, help shape projects and gain further insight into the Society’s work. I am learning a range of new skills and being a member of the Communications Committee has provided me access to an amazing network of people, which has led me to new opportunities. For example, I have had the opportunity to attend the e-Bug 10 year anniversary conference in January 2019. The conference provided me with fresh ideas and helpful information for my own outreach activities. More importantly, I was able to facilitate a new e-Bug partnership with Ukraine, by putting my former student Dr Mariya Lobanovska in touch with the e-Bug team. Mariya has previously organised microbiology-related public engagement activities in her home town of Kharkiv, Ukraine and was therefore able to suggest the partnership to her colleagues at the Landau Centre, the Anatoliy Denisenko Charitable Foundation and the V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University. Their collaboration with e-Bug began in May, and we are all looking forward to the launch of e-Bug activities in Kharkiv later this year.

What would you say to other members who are looking for ways to get involved with the Society’s activities?

The Society provides opportunities for members to engage in a many activities, such as policy work, outreach or becoming a champion. I would recommend interested members to speak to those who are already involved for example Society champions, or to take part in mentor/mentee schemes or shadowing opportunities, so that they have a clear understanding of the commitment and can find the most suitable role for them.  My experience has been positive and beneficial, so I would encourage members to look out for positions advertised by social media and newsletters and get involved!

Finally, why does Microbiology matter?

Microbes underpin so many fundamental processes in nature, in health and disease, agriculture and biotechnology. In terms of my own research interests, the rise of antimicrobial resistance has made studying the basis of virulence critical, as it can offer alternative approaches for treating or preventing infections. More generally, microbiology matters because it helps us to understand how we can best maintain a healthy and happy coexistence with the microbial world.