Peter Wildy Prize Q&A – Professor Laura Bowater

07 April 2019


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 taking place tomorrow, Rebecca Hall from our membership interviewed Professor Laura Bowater to find out more about her work and how it feels to win a Microbiology Society prize.

How did it feel to find out that you had won the Peter Wildy prize?

It was really exciting. I was thrilled to be nominated, I remember being more surprised at that than I was by winning. I had about a week after I was told that I had won to be excited, and then I thought ‘oh gosh, I’m going to have to give a talk!’. When you win a prize for being a good science communicator, you need to make sure your talk is going to be good!

What has been your route to where you are now?

I don’t think I have had a typical career path. After my PhD I moved to America for two years, got married and had a child, then came back to the UK and had my second child. I needed to get back into work, but by this stage I had completely convinced myself that I wasn’t going to get a job in science because I had been out of work for years with having my children. I started working a six-month job at the John Innes Centre that became permanent and used time outside of my working hours to expand my skills, including in science communication. I worked part time for the Open University as an Associate Lecturer which gave me the teaching experience I needed to progress in my career. I moved to the University of East Anglia (UEA) as a Teaching Fellow then followed the more traditional path to Senior Lecturer and Professor. I’m now working with academics across UEA to increase communication and promote interdisciplinarity, making their research more valuable to them and to society. I think I have achieved a lot of firsts in my career. I want to tell people that it is completely possible have a career that doesn’t follow the traditional route.

How has the Microbiology Society helped you throughout your career?

I was a member when I was a PhD student, then joined again when I came to UEA. I really like it, I feel like it’s my society. It is like a community and it has been very good for me. I was on the Communications Committee for a long time, starting when it was the Education and Personal Development Committee. I was also the Editor of Microbiology Today and worked on the Equality and Diversity working group. At the start of my career at UEA I also had a PhD student funded in part by the Microbiology Society.

What was your first experience with science outreach/public engagement?

My first experience of public engagement was while I was at the John Innes Centre (JIC) when genetically modified organisms (GMOs) became really topical. It made me think about how we as scientists we weren’t getting things quite right. To me, GM is such a good thing to do and very sensible. The debate became very messy because many of the public really don’t think it’s a good thing to do. I remember a GM debate held at the JIC very clearly; they had people from both sides give their opinions to a public audience. It was a revelation. Even though I didn’t think the ‘con’ side had the argument, they had passion and they had tuned in to the public about their concerns. The ‘good, evidence-based, scientific’ argument just didn’t work.

Why do you think public engagement is so important?

I think academics struggle with impact. They do research because they find something fascinating. If people are paying you to do something then I feel your science should have a benefit or should be addressing a problem. I am very pragmatic in this regard. I want to see the bigger picture; what does the science mean and what can we do with it? With public engagement you can raise the profile of your research.

Do you think public engagement is the responsibility of all scientists?

I used to think that the only important thing was to be enthusiastic. I do still think there is value in that, but it is also slightly self-centered. If you do public engagement then you are taking up people’s time and their time has value. You need to think about what you’re doing, and why you are doing it. I feel uncomfortable with public engagement being seen as a vanity project and I believe it needs to be undertaken thoughtfully and it should have a point to it. I also feel that if you’re being paid public money to do research then I think there is a duty to explain what you’re doing, why it matters and where it might lead. I don’t think everyone needs to do it as long as it is being done somewhere, well, by someone, and the message is getting out there. Let the people who enjoy it, understand its value, and have the skill set do it!

What do you think are the main challenges of public engagement?

We used to think that if we tell people enough and enthuse them enough then they will change their mindset and believe the same things we do. The recent agenda has been for everything to be a discussion and a debate; open and two-way. I think that’s good – at times – but not always the way to do things. It is a lot to expect people to be as interested in something as you are. And what are you going to do with the information and the learning you have gathered at the end of it? That concerns me. Sometimes people don’t want to be brought into a debate. They just want to have a good time, listen to a lecture or enjoy an experiment.

How are you addressing these challenges?

I have a PhD student writing up at the moment who is working on a public engagement project. We want to see how well being involved in Antibiotics Unearthed – a citizen science project about antimicrobial resistance (AMR) – helped people learn about AMR. Citizen science is quite a buzzword; people believe it is the way forward in enthusing and engaging the public with science. If we look at the data on citizen science projects, have they worked well? Do they provide a long-term embedding of knowledge, interest or understanding in a specific subject or in science in general? Or is it something that people come along to and enjoy for the hour that they are there and then that’s it? I think figuring out what it means to say ‘this works’ is vital. Let’s ask these big questions, I think that is the way to go.

You published a book on antimicrobial resistance. What was that process like?

I was approached to write it. The process definitely takes longer than you think it will, and you have to be very disciplined if you are writing in your own time. The hardest part is starting! I really believe that anyone who wants to, can write a book; if they know how to find information, research information and construct it into an argument. I just knew that there were stories I wanted to tell; the role of women, the rivalries. A lot of the stories didn’t sit comfortably with me and I wanted people to know about them. But for me, the key driver was that I think the growing problem of AMR is so important. I want as many people as possible to know about it and the implications of doing nothing. In the end, I learned a lot from the writing process and I’m proud of it.

What do you see as the challenges to tackling AMR?

We have to take multiple approaches to addressing this issue and to see what works. It cannot be solved by tackling the problem from one perspective and with one group of stakeholders. The problem lies with all of us, as does the solution. For example, we might feel that antibiotic use in the agricultural sector is where the problem lies, but until we as a society decide we don’t want cheap food then we’re pushing the people who work in that sector to make certain choices about how they protect the food chain. Every single person has a job to do and a part to play, we need to move away from the blame.

I also think we need to start emphasising the fact that antibiotics can have nasty side effects and are not always the healthiest option, too.

Have you noticed a change in the attitude of the public?

People are now really shocked at how serious a problem it is because they hadn’t clicked with this before. When you start giving cold hard statistics about how many people will die from it, how many routine operations will not be possible, the potential issues with organ transplants, then people start to understand what AMR means and what it may mean for them. I think a change in attitude is that people are now more fearful. They know it is something that will affect them. Sometimes the problem feels too big but there are little steps we can all take. Everyone can do something simply by washing their hands.

What are your views on the current situation facing women in science?

I still think we have a long way to go. There are lots of people pushing that boulder up the hill, but as soon as we stop pushing it – it is going to roll back down. I think we still have a job to do there but having a spotlight shining on this issue is really important. At times I have found it frustrating and personally exhausting when I receive comments like ‘calm down’, ‘stop getting so upset about it’. When is this going to stop? I still think that women have to be brave to put their heads above the parapet. When we reach a stage when we don’t need to summon courage to address these issues then we know we have moved the debate along. Demanding equity, equality and celebrating diversity in our workplace shouldn’t feel problematical whether you are male or female... in fact we shouldn’t have to demand it all because it should be a given and a right.

What are you going to talk about in your Prize Lecture?

I plan to start with a bit of a biography and then show how being part of the Microbiology Society has helped me the whole way through my career.

This lecture takes place tomorrow at the Microbiology Society Annual Conference at 17:40 in the Main Auditorium.

Inspired by our outstanding Prize winners? Nominations for 2020 Prize Lectures and the 2021 Prize Medal are now open. Visit for more information.

Image: The University of East Anglia.