Meet the 2023 Microbiology Society Prize Medal winner, Professor Wendy Barclay

17 April 2023

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Each year the Microbiology Society awards the Microbiology Society Prize Medal to an outstanding microbiologist who is a global leader in their field and whose work has had a far-reaching impact beyond the field of microbiology. 

Ahead of the Prize Medal 2023 lecture ECM Forum Executive Committee member, Kathy Stratton, interviewed Professor Wendy Barclay 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 Microbiology Society Prize Medal?

I am still completely overwhelmed by it! I have looked up the previous winners and they are all very prestigious scientists, so I am very grateful to the people that nominated me. Multiple times in the past this award has been won by scientists from overseas, so if this is the start of a trend in celebrating UK microbiologists then I am very happy to be at the front of it.

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

I am a virologist which means I work with viruses, more specifically respiratory viruses like  the ones that cause flu and COVID-19. I think most people realise that these are viruses which can cause huge outbreaks because they spread between people through the air, and what I'm really interested in is understanding how that happens. Usually when we have these pandemics it's because a new virus has come across from animals and it's somehow adapted to be transmissible through the air between people. Therefore, it is crucial to understand this so that we can somehow prepare ourselves for future outbreaks. My research is kind of a huge risk assessment to try to understand which of the viruses out there in nature are most likely to be a problem for us.

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

I remember being a PhD student at the Common Cold Unit in Salisbury and I gave my first ever public talk at a Microbiology Society annual meeting. I was absolutely petrified, but the atmosphere was supportive and friendly, people came and talked to me afterwards and seemed interested in what I was doing which was very encouraging. At one point in my career, I sat on the Virus Division and learned how the Society works, and at other points I've chaired various seminars and symposia at the annual meetings. I remember being heavily pregnant with my first baby at a meeting that was held in Surrey, and the following day I gave birth! I say that because I remember it really was a place where I could go and be part of the family. I do think there's a tremendous community amongst the Society and everyone in my lab is a member and I encourage them to go and offer up posters and talks. In fact, many of the people who have been in my lab have since been on the Virus Division and played their role in it. It’s a sort of legacy handed down from generation to generation and it’s how we keep microbiology alive in the UK.

What's one thing about viruses you wish the public had a better understanding of?

I am increasingly concerned about what I see as a somewhat anti-science sentiment out there amongst the general public. I think that particularly in virology we're in a very dangerous time, so what I want the public to know is that working with viruses, and particularly working with genetically altered viruses, is not always a bad or dangerous thing. I think there's a general feeling in the press and amongst some members of the public that biologists are reckless and we’re brewing up viruses with the potential to do harm if released into the community. I've had a number of Freedom of Information requests about our work which revealed to me that the public really don't understand the level of biosecurity that we as microbiologists work under and the various regulations and permissions from the health and safety executive needed to do our research. I think it would be good to try to explain to the public how we make our work safe and to explain the risks and benefits of working with genetically manipulated viruses. Our main objective is to find out something that we think will be of benefit to human or animal health, but with social media perpetuating so much misinformation I think this is one of the biggest communication challenges that we've ever had.

Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic increased scientific literacy in the general public or caused more distrust in science?

I think that in the UK the communication was quite good, they tried to put informed people on the stand alongside the Prime Minister such as Sir Patrick Valance and Sir Chris Whitty to explain how the science was feeding into policy. I'm not sure we really grasped the opportunity to help people understand what viruses are and what sorts of experiments go on. Like I said earlier, the knowledge gap in the public is the scientific process and how we get these results. It isn’t clear what it is to be a scientist and how much training is involved. You never see a TV show about microbiologists, there’s shows about police and doctors, but scientists don't really feature and when we do, we are portrayed as nerds in comedy shows rather than real people who have the same ups and downs of life as everyone else! I think there's this sort of “us and them” feeling and maybe this became even more so when scientists stood up and told the public what they should do.

How do you think we can fix distrust in science?

I think that things will get better because my children learned an awful lot more about molecular biology in school than I did, so I think there is a generation coming through now for whom all these modern techniques are much more familiar, and the concept of genetic engineering is not so dreadful. So, I think how we fix it is to make sure that the teaching at school of our subject is excellent and we can all do our bit with outreach, and also making sure that when we communicate, we do so clearly. But then at the other end there is still a huge adult population who have this general distrust and I honestly think that social media is a very dangerous thing. I think to fix the distrust in science we need to find a way to stop these conspiracy theories from getting out of control and educate our children (and adults!) about how to tell what sources are credible.

What is one thing about academia you would like to improve?

Part of the COVID-19 response that worked well was the marriage that's taken place between academia and government science in a way that just hasn't happened before. The UK Health Security Agency reached out to academia, from social scientists who study behaviour to mathematical modellers as well as structural biologists and chemists. I think now we have virtual meetings it's easier to get people with lots of different expertise together and the whole of academia should take note of that. What it allowed academics to do was to put their knowledge and expertise into perspective in the real world. We had a real-world problem and at some of the meetings I attended, hundreds of people were dialling in and offering up their latest piece of data. It's not necessarily how the academic world should work all the time, but it really was a wakeup call to push scientists to ask themselves how their work or expertise could be used. I think it's very helpful for scientists to be challenged about how their work translates into our world today, so I would like there to be even more stakeholder engagement at every level. I would like people who work in hospitals treating patients with flu to come and tell us what problems they’re facing. Do they need another flu drug and/or do we need to refine the way they use the drugs we already have?

There is a significant gender gap in academia, especially at the group leader level, how do you think we can reduce this gap?

I think about this a lot because when we look at our departments gender balance it's pretty good up until post-Doc level and then it drops off. This isn’t surprising as this is the age when a person might be thinking about having children, and women more often are the ones who need to take time out of work to do this. I think that we must help people at that critical point so that women can come back into work. There are some funds available such as the Dorothy Hodgkin’s fellowship, but more investment in helping women coming back to work after maternity leave is key. Another thing we can do is to have role models and colleagues that reassure women that an academic career is doable. I was very lucky to be part of a group with some other women at my level where you could just go and talk about a problem in complete confidence and people would help you find your own solution. We also must be really careful about burdening women with extra responsibilities, for example at some point in my career I was invited to be on every single interview committee for every new recruit because there should be a woman on the committee. These rules are important, but the danger there is that women are then spending their time doing more administrative tasks than their fellow male colleagues.

You are very experienced in public speaking and give really good presentations, what tips do you have for researchers to give good presentations?

It's really about knowing your audience, when you give a talk you are actually an entertainer and it's about giving the right level of detail for the audience. Tell people why you're doing what you do, because there has to be some sort of relevance or reason to do this research. You need a good slide to give the background of why you are doing this work, and then explain what you have done and why it is unique.

If you weren't a scientist, what would your dream job be?

I love this question, if I wasn't a scientist, I think I would be a musician in an orchestra. When I was young I played the clarinet in a youth orchestra, but when I got to university I didn’t carry on with it. What I think I like about my job is being on a team, and in an orchestra you have to be good at your instrument, but you can also appreciate how good everybody else is. When you're all playing a lovely symphony together and people you care about are in the audience it’s just the best feeling in the world. So, I think that I would like a job where I challenge myself to be as good as I can be but also be part of a collective effort to achieve excellence.


Image: Alun Callender.