Meet the 2023 Marjory Stephenson Prize winner, Professor Sharon Peacock

18 April 2023

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The Marjory Stephenson Prize is the principal prize of the Microbiology Society, awarded for an outstanding contribution of current importance in microbiology. 

Ahead of the Marjory Stephenson Lecture Emma Simpson interviewed Professor Sharon Peacock to learn more about her career and how it feels to win a Microbiology Society prize.

Congratulations on your win. How did you feel when you were told you were this year’s winner of the Marjory Stephenson Prize 2023?

The Microbiology Society is an incredible organisation, and to have received a prize from them means a lot to me. But I am acutely aware that it’s a reflection of not just my work – anything I have achieved needs to recognise the efforts of many others, most recently the people who made up the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium.

How would you summarise your research to a member of the public?

In the last decade or more, our ability to sequence the genomes of microorganisms has greatly improved. I wanted to explore this shift in technology to understand how information on the genetic code of pathogens could be applied to improve patient care and public health. Before the pandemic, I was working on combining genome data with time and place (epidemiological) information to enhance our ability to detect outbreaks in hospitals, such as those caused by Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). When the COVID-19 pandemic started, I switched focus and worked to establish the COG-UK Consortium. This was needed so that we could sequence the causative virus (SARS-CoV-2) to track how it evolved over time. We were able to sequence variants of concern, which formed the basis for studies on their transmissibility, disease severity and immune evasion.

How has being a member of the Microbiology Society supported your career?

It has given me access to a huge range of topics and meetings, the opportunity to learn from experts in their field, and to network with other scientists. The science meetings organised by the Microbiology Society are a rich source of new findings and help to generate new ideas. It has catered for me throughout my entire career and gave me an important platform as an early and mid-career scientist. For example, writing and presenting posters was a great moment to engage with others about my work, get helpful feedback, and develop new links and collaborations.

What first inspired you to pursue a career in science?

It was when I saw medical science being used to diagnose and treat patients whilst I was a student nurse that my interest and curiosity really started to take off. With just 6 months of nursing experience behind me, the idea dawned on me that I wanted to train in medicine. That was a turning point, even though I had no idea how I would achieve my dream! But I got lucky and found people who would support me. After completing my medical training, I initially worked in a range of medical disciplines (such as cardiology, renal and respiratory medicine) before specialising in clinical microbiology. I then got the opportunity to do a PhD through a 5-year Wellcome Trust Training Fellowship, which was spent at the University of Oxford and Trinity College Dublin. To have the chance to study a science question in such granular detail was enough to get me hooked for life – I have been a clinical academic ever since.

How do you think your earlier years influenced your career?

School had no influence on my career – I left school at 16 and took a job in a corner shop. It was quite a bit later that I took A-levels and was fortunate enough to land a place at the University of Southampton to study medicine. But I am a huge supporter of engaging children in their early years to give them glimpses of science to spark their own curiosity, and to begin to explore with them how important science is to our present and future world.  Attracting people from a diverse range of backgrounds is also essential if we are to sustain a vibrant scientific community.

If you had one piece of advice for someone early in their career, what would it be?

Follow your dreams, and don’t hold back from asking others to help you realise them.

You are very committed to your work in mentoring, why do you think this is so important?  

I live by the principle that it is my personal responsibility to help and mentor others in their learning, development, and career progression. I take a particular interest in supporting other women in science. I believe that it is entirely feasible to further improve female representation among the ranks of senior scientists over time. But this will only happen if women and men are willing to speak up or take decisions that add to this direction of travel. I found it easier to be more outspoken the more senior I became – but only through regular practice! I am also passionate about attracting and supporting a diverse workforce. This creates a rich environment for creativity and innovation. Based on my own experience, our past lives inform and influence how we think, how we work and how we interact with others. A diverse workforce is likely to create a more equitable environment for everyone to work in.

What would you say are the biggest questions you want to answer?

If I could restart my scientific career from scratch, I would throw myself into the study of the gut microbiome. There is still so much to understand about its role in health and disease, and how we might be able to harness information about the microbiome to predict, treat or even prevent the onset of chronic diseases. This intersection between our microbiome and non-communicable diseases creates new and exciting opportunities for interventions. Perhaps it’s not so far-fetched to think that our companion microbial incubator acts as the conductor of our future health and disease? How amazing is that?