Fleming Prize 2021 Q&A – Professor Britt Koskella

26 April 2021

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The Microbiology Society Prizes recognise excellence and are awarded to those making significant contributions in the field of microbiology, based on nominations received from our membership. They are awarded at our Annual Conference, where the winners also present their lectures. Ahead of the Fleming Prize Lecture 2021: The challenges and opportunities for understanding the factors shaping the plant microbiome, taking place today, Meaghan Castledine, member of the Society’s Early Career Microbiologists’ Forum, interviewed Professor Britt Koskella to find out more about her work and how it feels to win a Microbiology Society prize.

What inspired you to pursue a career in scientific research?

I don't think I was inspired to have a career in science. I have been continually inspired to stay in science, but I didn't come into science actively. I was able to secure a paid job as an undergraduate in an evolutionary biology lab, and that moment completely changed everything for me, because up until then, I assumed that with a biology major you went into medicine or dentistry. By joining this lab, I got to see first-hand that you can go from an idea to an answer through an experiment. And that inspired me. So, it was actually being there in a lab, hands-on and seeing the scientific process in action, that was my first moment of inspiration. And that continues to inspire me every day.

What are the biggest advances you have seen in your field from when you started your career to now?

One thing about working in the microbiome and virology fields is that everything has changed very rapidly in the last decade, as a result of sequencing technologies. And yet, to be honest, not as much has changed conceptually. That's a really interesting juxtaposition because it tells us that these ideas and hypotheses have largely held up to new data, but also that the conceptual side of the field hasn’t quite caught up with all the new data-driven insights.

When I first got into microbiology, I remember very strikingly that almost all of the talks were about sequencing diversity. There was so much excitement about this new, unknown world that was finally being uncovered and discovered. But that quickly moved away from stamp collecting and towards a need to actually understand all of this diversity. I think we are now beginning to see a reconceptualising and retheorising of microbial ecology and evolution.

What surprises me the most now is that every time we go out to test one of the very basic ideas in community ecology, we learn all of the ways that the rules can be broken in microbial communities. The more that we discover, the more we uncover open questions that we didn't even know to ask before.

What has been the biggest challenges you have faced in your career and what advice would you give to someone having gone through them?

I've been very lucky in that I haven't had that many direct challenges. I feel like I've been highly supported by all of my mentors and that has been incredible. Among the best advice I can give people is to really think hard about the relationships you're developing in science, because those interactions are the foundations on which you will thrive. Unfortunately, I know that for many people, finding the right support, not just of a mentor, but also lab environment and department, is critical, and that likely reinforces a lot of the inequities that we see in science.

I noticed that a lot of your research involves lots of different interactions between microbial species. Is this something you’ve always been curious about?

I have never studied anything other than species interactions and yes, that is very much what got me excited about science and it still does. The types of species interactions for me have changed – starting with plant–fungal pathogens, then snail–trematode interactions, then to bacteria–phage interactions, and now to more of a whole community level – but the questions have stayed remarkably similar. Just look outside the window and you see that no organism is, even for a moment in its life, not interacting with another organism. That has to tell you that species interactions are central to every aspect of biology.

Do you think 'phage' will, one day, become an everyday term to the public and not just scientists?

As you know, phage therapy has been around since before the discovery of antibiotics, but I think there's a real challenge in terms of public understanding of phages in clinical settings, mainly because they are viruses and viruses are typically thought of as bad. I think key to making phages a household idea is really instilling this idea that not all viruses are bad, just like it took us a long time to internalise that only a very small subset of bacteria are bad. I think a similar reckoning is coming for viral communities; viruses shape diversity, especially within our microbiome, and may well be as important to our health as our commensal bacterial microbiota.

What are your hopes for the future of your research field?

First, I've been really excited by the conversations happening around decolonising science and how important it is to create environments and a supportive structure in which everyone can thrive in this field. I think that is going to be critical to the success of the whole field. I've been very buoyed by the momentum that we've gained, but of course it takes time for true change. I hope more than anything that this momentum will be sustained.

Second, within the microbiome field, I am particularly excited about how it is emerging as a truly interdisciplinary science. You cannot understand the microbiome without biochemists, microbiologists, evolutionary biologists, ecologists, clinicians, theoreticians and more. I think it’s incredible how all of these researchers have begun to communicate and work together to unlock the mysteries of these complex microbial communities which are themselves so critical to animal and plant health. I hope that the microbiome field can become a model of how the sub-disciplines in biology and beyond come together to solve much bigger complex problems.

The Fleming Prize Lecture 2021: The challenges and opportunities for understanding the factors shaping the plant microbiome, takes place tomorrow at the Microbiology Society Annual Conference Online 2021 at 17:30–18:15.

Inspired by our outstanding prize winners? Nominations for 2022 Prize Lectures and the 2023 Prize Medal are now open. Visit the Prize Lecture pages for more information.

Image: Britt Koskella .