Helping us unlock potential: Steve Oliver’s story

19 December 2023


A member since 1970, Professor Steve Oliver shares his journey with the Microbiology Society, from pivotal early career moments to recent collaborative efforts. His donation to the Unlocking Potential Fund reflects a belief in giving back and supporting the next generation of microbiologists.

I joined the Microbiology Society (then known as the Society for General Microbiology) in 1970 while an undergraduate in microbiology at Bristol. Although I have joined other societies since then, I have always regarded the Microbiology Society as my ‘home’ society. It was at a Society meeting in Leicester in January 1974, that I gave my first talk at a scientific conference. Subsequently, I became Chair of the Genetics Division, which provided me with my first ever experience leading an enterprise larger than my own research group –⁠ an experience that would prove invaluable in subsequent years.

In recent years, following my (nominal) retirement, the Microbiology Society has continued to support my activities in both research and in the wider scientific community. The Society provided the platform and technical support that enabled Juan Mata, Phil Zegerman and me to run the British Yeast Group Meeting as an online conference in 2021. It also provided funding and access to its online abstracts submission platform to support the 31st International Conference on Yeast Genetics & Molecular Biology that Duccio Cavalieri and I organised in Florence in summer 2023. Finally, the Society was very helpful to Greg Amoutzias and me in the publication of our research in Microbial Genomics, despite the fact that we had no grant funding (a piece from Professor Amoutzias appeared earlier in this series).

All of this made me feel that it was high time that I gave back to the Society. I chose to do this through the Unlocking Potential Fund for a very good reason. Peter Goodfellow (a fellow student in Microbiology in Bristol while I was there) once said to me that, in our day, if you were thought to be any good, you were looked after. Looking back on my own career, I realised this is true. Once I’d graduated with a First in microbiology from Bristol, an MRC PhD scholarship just seemed to appear, I can’t recall applying for one. Later, I applied for an SRC post-doctoral Fellowship to allow me to work in Cal Mclaughlin’s lab at the University of California, Irvine, USA. The arrangement with Cal was that, if I didn’t get the Fellowship, he would pay me from his NIH Grant. I didn’t get the Fellowship, but then President Nixon cut the NIH budget by 30% – this meant Mclaughlin was no longer able to support me. Disaster – and doubly so because my wife had resigned from a very good teaching position in London. I went to see Howard Rogers, my Head of Division at Mill Hill, and told him my sorry tale. He puffed on his pipe and told me to leave it with him. Two days later I had an SRC Fellowship!

Things don’t work like that anymore, but early career researchers still need looking after. This is why it is so important to support the Unlocking Potential Fund so that their ‘home’ Society can do just that.


The Microbiology Society has a role in helping unlock and harness the potential of the next generation of leading microbiologists. Join Professor Steve Oliver by donating to the Unlocking Potential Fund and support us in spreading the word.