Peter Wildy Prize 2020 Q&A – Professor Graham Hatfull

27 April 2021


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 Peter Wildy Prize Lecture 2020 taking place today, Winnie Lee, Prokaryotic Division Representative of the Society’s Early Career Microbiologists’ Forum Executive Committee, interviewed Professor Graham Hatfull to find out more about his work and how it feels to win a Microbiology Society prize.

Tell us about your research.

We have been studying numerous aspects of bacteriophage (phage) biology and applications since I joined the University of Pittsburgh (USA) in 1988, after training at the University of London, Edinburgh University and at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. We have focused on phages that infect mycobacteria, with a view to not only exploring the diversity, dynamics and evolution of the phage population, but exploiting them to develop tools for mycobacterial genetics and potential clinical applications. We have developed integrated research education programmes contributing to a collection of over 17,000 phages, have described tools used widely in the genetics of Mycobacterium tuberculosis and reported the first successful therapeutic use of phages to treat a mycobacterial infection.

What is your role in this research?

As a professor at a large university, I teach undergraduates and graduate students, and I lead a research group of about 15–20 people that includes student researchers (undergraduate and graduate), postdoctoral researchers and research assistants. I direct this research initiative, mentor lab members, obtain funding to support the research and help write articles and reviews.

Why is this research important?

Phages are the most numerous biological entities in the biosphere! And yet we know relatively little about most of them. They are enormously diverse genetically and the vast majority of their genes are of unknown function. So, they harbor many of nature’s secrets that have yet to be solved. Phages – and the dynamic interactions with their hosts – have given us powerful biotechnological tools such as restriction enzymes and CRISPR-Cas. Finally, phages have therapeutic potential for treating antibiotic resistant bacterial infections, an urgent clinical need.

Why are professional organisations such as the Microbiology Society important?

I am a member of both the Microbiology Society and the American Society for Microbiology. These play critical roles in organising, representing and supporting the communities of academic and clinical microbiologists within the UK and the US, respectively. They help the general public to understand what microbiologists do and why it is important, and they provide opportunities for microbiologists to share their research and their educational strategies with each other.

Please tell us about your educational initiatives in microbiology.

We have developed several programmes aimed at providing opportunities for students to become engaged in authentic scientific research; not just available to students identified as ‘gifted’, but to all students regardless of academic background. These programmes are based on a common platform in which students (mostly first year undergraduates) isolate a new phage, name it, purify it, isolate DNA and computationally analyse its sequenced genome. The largest programme is the Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) programme, with almost 150 participating institutions and over 5,000 student researchers each year. Phage discovery and genomics is well-suited for these purposes, with an endless and highly diverse phage population awaiting discovery using simple but powerful techniques and approaches.

Why does microbiology matter?

Microbes influence us and the world around us in profound ways, from the changing climate to human health. Microbes are so numerous and so varied that there is much to be discovered, and advances in technology provide new and powerful ways to study and exploit the microbial world.

How did you get to where you are now?

Hard work! But seriously, there are many roads to follow, and mine is not uncommon. I was not a brilliant student at any level, but I hacked my way through by finding the things I liked or did better at, and making it work to my advantage. I have been aided at every career stage by the kindness and generosity of those that have provided me opportunities. I’ve tried to take advantage of these and to return the favour to the next generation of young and upcoming scientists.

What influenced you to choose your field of research?

We’ve studied phage biology for the past thirty-plus years and began that journey by seeking new and undiscovered site-specific recombination mechanisms, which I had been investigating as a postdoc. However, I quickly got drawn to the enormous power of phages in learning about viral diversity, exploiting them to understand bacterial diseases, and their utility in promoting science education.

What inspired you to pursue an academic career?

It wasn’t a grand plan or even an intentional pursuit! I found in graduate school and then as a postdoctoral researcher that I greatly enjoyed the independence and the freedom we have in academia. There is an informality about the environment that I like, and a lovely combination of intriguing experiments and key ideas. Every day is different, and there’s rarely a dull day. That’s hard to beat.

Where do you see your research going in the next few years?

In the last couple of years, we have become interested in the potential therapeutic use of phages for treating mycobacterial infections. I remain a healthy sceptic as to whether this approach will be generally useful, but it’s clear that we need to know much more about the determinants of phage host range and the mechanisms involved. Understanding phage specificities for bacterial clinical isolates is an intriguing area and I suspect will keep us very busy for a while.

What advice would you give an early career researcher starting out in research?

Work hard, play hard, and try to get different research experiences so that you can learn what projects, disciplines and experimental approaches you are best suited to. I’m a believer of ‘horses for courses’! Not every lab or every mentor will be the best for you. So, explore; try some different things. It’ll get you on a track that works for you.

The Peter Wildy Prize Lecture 2020 takes place today 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.