Meet the 2023 Peter Wildy Prize winner, Professor Iruka N Okeke

19 April 2023

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Each year the Microbiology Society awards the Peter Widly Prize for outstanding contributions to microbiology education or the communication of microbiology to the public. The Peter Wildy Prize is named after distinguished virologist and much-loved teacher Peter Wildy, who was President of the Society from 1978 to 1981.

Ahead of the Peter Wildly Prize 2023 lecture, Freya Allen interviewed Professor Iruka N Okeke 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 Peter Wildy Prize?

It was a big surprise; I knew I had been nominated the year before, but I just really was not expecting it. I had looked at previous winners of the prize and I was so awed by the work they had done that I really didn’t expect to win such a prestigious prize.

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

I am a bacterial geneticist. That means I study how bacterial germs inherit traits and how they spread them around. I’m interested in bacteria that cause diseases as well as bacteria that become resistant to drugs that are used to treat infections. We use microbiology methods that involve growing bacteria and studying their genomes (this means their DNA) to understand how these bacteria have specific characteristics that make people sick, how they share genes amongst one another and how they change over time.

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

It’s important when you’re a scientist that works in communities that don’t contain many other scientists to be part of a larger network. Now I am at the University of Ibadan, where we have a large number of microbiologists. There are four different microbiology departments, but not many people who work in my very specific area, and so it’s nice to be part of a global group of scientists that can interact virtually and physically from time to time. Before I moved to the University of Ibadan, I was at a small university in the US called Haverford College, and I was the only microbiologist there. So, being part of a community is really critical for your own growth as well as for determining how your work could impact others. I have been impacted more directly; I read the Microbiology Society journals all the time, I’ve acted as an author, and this allows me to disseminate my work as well as to read work from others. Finally, the most important thing I do is to train other microbiologists. There are a lot of resources that the Society produces that are used in training. We have also been awardees of a training grant that allowed us to set up a lab course in Nigeria that still runs. So, there are lots of different ways that the Microbiology Society has really been central to my own development and my ability to reach out to other people.

What are the biggest challenges in your field at the moment?

I think resources are a huge one. Almost everybody in my group is a trainee and this is something that has really characterised my group for all of its existence. The thing about working with trainee scientists is that, some resources are used to generate the research output, and other resources are used to train people. There is a limit in terms of availability of resources for training globally. The things that we use for molecular microbiology are quite expensive, such as enzymes which are difficult and expensive to purify. Training budgets tend to be small, so we must think of creative ways that students can have hands on experiences while they’re being trained, as well as the opportunity to discover, because if you discover as you learn you’re more likely to learn more and be motivated to continue on that path.

The other one is beyond the classroom or my lab. The next step for students is also a challenge. In academia there are quite a few training positions at the undergraduate and postgraduate level and even at the postdoctoral level. However, there are not a lot of openings that allow people that have been training in laboratory skills to use those skills in practice. This is particularly so in Nigeria where there is a great need for microbiology skills and microbiology practices, but there are not a lot of funded positions so that microbiologists can use those skills to make discoveries, to do surveillance, to work in industry, and so on.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced in your career and how did you overcome them?

When I started off as a graduate student, and even when I became a faculty member, it was unusual in every country where I worked for a woman of African descent to be a microbiological scientist. As a student in Nigeria, I did pharmacy as my first degree, and I was enthralled by pharmaceutical microbiology. More than half of my class of undergrads were female, but when I went to grad school to study for my master’s and then my PhD, there were very few female scientists. Not because there weren’t people that had the credentials to get into those programmes, but because there was a lot of discouragement of women going into academia and the sciences. It was thought that you’d have to choose between having a family and doing science – and the right choice was not doing science. I had the advantage of finishing my first degree very young, so I was under less pressure than some of my classmates when I wanted to do a master’s degree. It was thought, “Well that’s fine you’re in your early twenties, you can still do a master’s degree and get married.” When I decided I wanted to do a PhD, I was blatantly told that I was educating myself out of a marriage because in general men marry women who have “lower” qualifications more than women who have the same type of qualification or greater. I think I just had to fly with that in blind faith; to do what’s right for me and see what happens in the future. I’ve been helped by having some amazing mentors, including Professor Adebayo Lamikanra of Obafami Awolowo University, Nigeria, who is a microbiologist in the pharmacy school and continually and commonly had female postgraduate students, even though we were rare. He was supportive of us, he believed that we were just as good if not better than our male colleagues, and he made it possible for us to believe in ourselves. Having good mentorship was important and having a family who on the one hand did not understand what I was doing and why, but on the other hand let me do it, was really helpful as well. Also, there were a lot of people I may not have known personally but who were role models. I knew that it wasn’t odd to be a microbiologist and be a scientist because I knew other people who were doing it, even if I hadn’t met them.

Finally, resources have been a huge challenge, but I’ve been fortunate at every stage to get a fellowship, a studentship, or a grant to be able to do research and get training when it was necessary.  I’ve had the opportunity to do some phenomenal things and really, it’s because different organisations, including the Microbiology Society, have decided to invest a little bit in the things that we do.

What have been the most exciting developments in the last ten years in the field?

Right now, I’m very fortunate to be doing microbiology at a time when genomic science is not only available, but is accessible. It’s not accessible enough, there are a lot of people that could use genomics and can’t use it right now. But compared to ten or twenty years ago where there were just a few places around the world where genomic science could be done, and everybody had to have a connection to them to be able to do it, things have democratised a lot. This means that a lot of people that didn’t have access to the technology, a lot of people who have skills that originally we would have thought didn’t have any application to microbiology, like computational science skills, are now asking microbiological questions. I think it’s a really nice time to be doing science. I don’t consider myself a genomicist, instead I consider myself a microbiologist who uses genomic tools, and so I think having this revolutionary impact on our field has been really exciting. One of the things that came out of the pandemic is that it democratised genomics further. Now, very small labs and labs in resource-limited settings have access to genomic technology because it has just been realised that this is the best way to do epidemiology of infectious diseases.

What are you most excited for in the next ten years?

In ten years’ time I’d rather not think about the scientific questions I’ll have or might have, I will probably be wrong about them. But I’d like to think about the people that are doing the science. For me, a lot of the motivation has been being able to enable people who one would not normally think of doing science to do it because really, this is where I came from. It was thought then that an African woman in Africa in her twenties was not going to be a PhD microbiologist that could ask questions. So, I’d like to think that anybody who wanted to play around with bacteria and ask questions about them would have the ability and accessibility to be able to do that. I hope we’re at that point in ten years’ time.

What is your proudest achievement?

I think I’m proudest of my mentees that have gone on and set themselves up in some kind of science profession, many of them are in academia. Some of them are in other life science fields, some of them use science to deliver medical care, some of them use science in surveillance, some of them use science to teach. It’s really amazing when working with somebody who came into my lab perhaps not even knowing they wanted to be a science student, let alone wanting to be a scientist, and then see them do phenomenal work out there using the scientific foundation that started in our group.

What advice would you give to early careers researchers?

I think to be open to exploration. When I was a child, you were asked what you wanted to do when you grew up and the expectation was that if you did that thing, you’d do it for the rest of your life. Now, careers change in ways we often can’t foresee, and I think just being open to doing what’s really interesting, what motivates you and what you’re passionate about will allow you to move in new directions. I think it’s a lot of fun to be a young person starting off now when we know we are going to live longer professionally and be exposed to skills and techniques that currently don’t exist. To be in a position to ask questions that we can’t dream about today is a really phenomenal opportunity and I really want them to take advantage of that.

Do you have a favourite microorganism?

Yes, I’ve always loved Escherichia coli. I’ve loved E. coli from the time I was an undergraduate. I worked on E. coli most of my life. I work on a lot more things now as we do support for a surveillance system, but I will always come back to E. coli.

Image: Maurice Wales.