An interview with Professor Jo Verran

January 2020

Professor Jo Verran is an Honorary Member of the Microbiology Society and known for her active involvement in microbiology education and outreach, particularly for undergraduates. Here she talks about her research, and how her passion for science communication led her to forming a platform for microbiologists to embrace literature via the Bad Bugs Book Club.

As Emeritus Professor in Microbiology at Manchester Metropolitan University, Professor Verran has established herself as a key advocate for boosting education in science. In 2004 she was recognised by the Microbiology Society as a recipient of the Peter Wildy award for innovation in microbiology education as well as being awarded the 2012 SfAM award for Public Engagement and the 2019 AAAS Mani L. Bhaumik Award for Public Engagement with Science. She is a National Teaching Fellow, and a PFHEA.

Professor Jo Verran
© Jo Verran

Tell us about your specialism area of research

My research focused on the interactions occurring between micro-organisms and inert surfaces. The research is highly interdisciplinary – I worked with engineers, chemists, polymer technologists – and we established an enviable cross-disciplinary expertise, being able to fabricate and characterise different surfaces and assess their interactions with micro-organisms. The work has been applied in several areas: prosthetic dentistry (denture plaque and denture stomatitis), hygienic food contact surfaces, and water distribution systems to name a few. I was particularly interested in how the surface topography and physicochemistry affected retention of micro-organisms and surface cleanability. We also explored several approaches to antimicrobial surfaces, including coatings, encapsulation of antimicrobial agents and photocatalytic surfaces. Overall, the aim was to specify conditions that may best retard or prevent microbial attachment, retention and biofilm formation. I was also a member of the BSI panel working to define standards for testing antimicrobial surfaces.

I must also add that in addition to the typical lab-based research outputs, I have published work on innovative approaches to teaching and public engagement in the hope that they might be of value to colleagues. To me, this is also research!

Why does microbiology matter to you?

That is a difficult question. It has been part of my working life for so long, but of course microbiology affects the whole world beyond academia. It is important that the public, as well as our students, are literate in terms of microbiology particularly (as well as science in general of course!).

How did you become involved with science communication?

It was an evolution I suppose. I encouraged my students to consider how they can explain their science to different audiences (initially even their families), and I used art and literature to encourage them to make science more accessible. This work kind of ballooned into more overt public engagement and science communication. I think it is very important that we approach the delivery of such events with care: it is like an experiment really, deciding on the topic/message (hypothesis), designing and delivering the event (methods), evaluating its success (results) and considering how effective the event was. I try to publish our public engagement work in peer-reviewed journals as often as possible.

What led you to forming the Bad Bugs Book Club? 

Ten years ago, this year I set up the Bad Bugs Book Club, a reading club comprising both scientists and non-scientists. We read fiction and talk about where microbiology fits into the plot. Sometimes the microbiology is central, other times it is more of a plot device – a little peripheral. We usually meet about five times a year and we have read almost sixty books – who would have thought!

What are the aims of the book club and how have you incorporated microbiology into literature?

It’s a way of having a conversation about microbiological topics on a level platform because everyone has read the book and is ready to share their thoughts and ideas. Sometimes we couple reading with other events such as guided walks or film screenings.

How do you go about choosing new literature for readers to connect with?

Our members collectively decide on what we are going to read next, we arrange the meeting and post the information on the website. For every book we have read, I have produced a reading guide which is what I use to lead discussion in the meeting. I also post a meeting report for each event. I’m really proud we have been going for ten years and there are still books to discover!

Can you give us an example of how you use topics and historical events such as the influenza pandemic as key discussion points in meetings?

Influenza is a great example, because novels about influenza are affected by the virulence of the particular strain described! Highly virulent strains cause apocalyptic destruction resulting in stories of survival, whereas less devastating pandemics necessitate different management, surveillance and political strategies. In our discussions, we usually consider the historical and current impact of any given disease, as well as looking at control and prevention.

You recently celebrated your 10th anniversary, what is next for the Book Club?

I want to promote the resource so that more people are aware of it and might use it. It is great that the Microbiology Society is using the format as part of its 75th anniversary celebrations, and I hope there will be a lot more groups set up as a result.

Of course, our usual meetings will continue through the year. I have also been involved with several YA (Young Adult) groups recently, looking at YA fiction as a vehicle for engaging with microbiology. One school in Penzance has set up a book club for years 10 and 11, reading one book each term.

I also want to make the website more attractive, informative and interactive.

You have been an active member of the Microbiology Society for a number of years, tell us about your involvement.

I first joined when I was a PhD student – quite a while ago! – and have been a member ever since. My main involvement in was through the Education Committee, which I chaired for several years, then the communications Committee. I was the Education representative on Council and responsible for organising two education meetings a year. Together with the Society and a PhD student, we produced school learning resources on ‘Algae’ and ‘Viruses’ as well as publishing a series of peer-reviewed papers about the processes involved in the production of these resources. I was involved in many of the outreach and engagement events that the Society organised, such as Cheltenham Science and Literature Festivals and the Chelsea Flower Show. I also initiated the Society outreach award. I loved working with the Society staff, as well as with academic colleagues, and was delighted that FEMS asked me to work with them to develop their education and public engagement ‘pillar’ as a consequence of my involvement with the Society.

Why is it important to join organisations like the Microbiology Society?

I always encouraged my undergraduates and postgraduates to join the Microbiology Society  or any professional society related to their subject of study. Not only are there many benefits for younger, or student members, but it is so important for students to be aware of the significant community of practitioners. It is great that the ECR group is so active – and that itself is a huge benefit for newer/younger members. Long-term membership inevitably engenders new friendships, new ideas and new collaborations, which is really enjoyable, and also valuable. Volunteering to take part in Society business has been one of the most rewarding parts of my career.

Inspired by the Bad Bugs Book Club the Microbiology Society has launched a project in celebration of its 75th anniversary to encourage members of the microbiology community to get together and discuss microbiology in literature through their own book clubs. Find out more information on the project and, tips on setting your own book club up and how you can get involved here.