An interview with Eleanor Furness

Society Champion Eleanor Furness is an MPhil student at Aberystwyth University, where she focuses on researching the microbial ecology of cold regions. In this interview she tells us why she decided to pursue a career in the field of microbiology, about her experience joining the Society as an undergraduate and how being involved has boosted her professional skills.

What encouraged you to pursue a career in the field of microbiology?

I’ve always loved learning, the thrill of discovery, using my imagination and helping people and the planet. Microbiology to me encompasses all of these. To be able to do something you love and which has the potential to benefit society is a great career choice. And of course, microbes are simply just amazing! It’s astonishing something so tiny has such huge impact. Microscopic life is endlessly fascinating.

Tell us a little about your area of research

I’m currently an MPhil student at Aberystwyth University and will be starting my PhD this September. My research focuses on the microbial ecology of cold regions, specifically the microbial life found in cryoconite holes on Arctic glaciers. The cryosphere is huge, covering approximately a fifth of the Earth, with around 10% of all the land surface covered by glacial ice, a substantial proportion of the planet which has, until fairly recently, been relatively neglected by microbiologists. We now know microbes not only survive but thrive in the cold. However, we still know very little about how they withstand these harsh environments, where a combination of sub-zero temperatures, high UV and low water availability create an extreme setting. Cryoconite holes form when a mixture of windblown microbial and mineral particles accumulates on a glacier surface, and due to its low albedo, melts down into the ice. Both my MPhil work and upcoming PhD research will systematically explore the microbial diversity of arctic cryoconite holes. Determining which adaptations permit life in the cold will allow us to understand and potentially exploit this genomic diversity.

Until recently, very little was known about the psychrophilic inhabitant or their specific  adaptations to the cold. Can you tell us how this is currently changing? 

This is why research in this area is so important. Thermophiles have received far more attention than the cold-loving psychrophiles; however, in the past two decades this has started to change and the inhabitants of the cryosphere now receive more consideration than ever before. We know that cold-adapted microorganisms have evolved a variety of specialist mechanisms in order to successfully colonise cold regions, such as the synthesis of antifreeze agents and cold-shock proteins, the release of protective exopolymeric substances and the use of alternate membrane lipid compositions. Psychrophilic research not only enables the fundamental exploration of ecology of life at the extremes, but also has potential biotechnological applications. It is still a relatively young field with so much more to uncover; I hope my research will be able to answer some of the many unknowns.

You won the Early Career Microbiologists’ Committee Prize at the 2018 Microbiology Society Conference and you are a Society Champion. Tell us more about your experience as a member of the Microbiology Society and its role in your professional development?

I joined the Microbiology Society in the first year of my undergraduate degree, and attended my first Annual Conference the same year, presenting a poster in the Antibiotics Unearthed session. It was a wonderful experience - I didn’t think anyone so early in their career could present a poster, but the session was a dedicated late school/early university session. The opportunity to present research so early on gave me the chance to see if research suited me and the confidence to pursue it. The Conference itself was amazing, the speakers, the sessions and the socials too, and it really was so inspiring for a first-year student. Later that summer I volunteered for the Society’s citizen science Antibiotics Unearthed event in Gwarnant forest. For two days we welcomed the public to our pop-up stand and helped them plate up their soil samples. It was great to work in a team with Society members from all stages of their careers, from undergraduates and PhD students, to Professors and even a former president of the Society.

The following summer of 2017 I was awarded a Harry Smith Vacation Studentship from the Society. I was awarded eight weeks of funding for research between the second and third years of my undergraduate degree. The chance to experience this mini research project was brilliant. I presented the results from the Harry Smith project at the next Annual conference in 2018 in a poster and was very fortunate to win the Early Career Committee Poster Prize. I was invited to the Society Showcase in London later that year along with other Poster Prize winners and the Young Microbiologist of the Year contestants, where we had the chance to meet each other, hear the Young Microbiologist of the Year talks and were awarded our certificates.

With so many opportunities to get involved and funding for travel, events and conferences via attendance grants available, the Microbiology Society has been a central part of my professional development. That’s why I wanted to not only give back to the Society, but to let others know about these opportunities by becoming a Society Champion. Since I became a Champion earlier this year, I’ve helped out on the registration desk while at the Annual Conference in Belfast 2019 and joined our Policy Team at the Science and the Assembly event in Cardiff at the start of June. I’ve also written a blog about my experience of the event. I’m looking forward to being involved with many more Microbiology Society events in the coming years.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about getting more involved with the Microbiology Society?

Go for it – the sooner the better. Getting more involved with the Society is an excellent way to boost your professional skills, confidence and for networking. There are so many events and opportunities all year round in different regions and with focus on different specific topics – there really is something for everyone at all stages.

Finally, why does microbiology matter?

Microbes are remarkably diverse, are found pretty much everywhere and impact almost every aspect of life. From plant symbiosis to infectious disease, from environmental remediation to biotechnology, from our health to food security and medicine – the list goes on! Microbiology matters and I’m glad to be a part of it.

Are you a member and interested in sharing stories about your research journey? Email [email protected]