Prize Lecture Q&A - Dr Sarah Coulthurst

11 April 2018


Our Prizes recognise excellence and are awarded to those making significant contributions in the field of microbiology, based on nominations received from the membership. They are awarded at our Annual Conference, where the winners also present their lectures. Ahead of the Fleming Prize Lecture, Helina Marshall, from our membership, interviewed Dr Sarah Coulthurst to find out what inspires her, more about her work and how it feels to win a Microbiology Society prize.

The 2018 Fleming Prize will be awarded to Dr Sarah Coulthurst from the University of Dundee. Sarah’s work focuses on protein secretion, working to understand how bacteria interact with their environment, each other, and their hosts. In particular, Sarah looks at gram-negative type VI protein secretion systems, which are involved in killing competitor bacteria and host toxicity. Sarah has been recognised for her outstanding work which has had an international impact on her field and she is acknowledged as a fantastic role model for early career researchers.

At what point did you realise that you perhaps wanted to pursue science as a career?

I wouldn’t say there was one magic moment, more of an ongoing process. At every point I made a decision at the time that has led me this way. I chose the science-based subjects at school and at university picked a degree that was interesting to me, which was natural sciences. I chose an honours and masters project and realised that I actually loved being in the lab, then thought how can I carry on doing this, so did a PhD and then again realised that I really enjoyed research and wanted to carry on. At every stage I thought that that was what I enjoyed and wanted to do more of.

Was your PhD also in Natural Sciences?

I did my PhD in the Biochemistry department in Cambridge, which was where I also did my honours project, and there were three or four bacteriology/molecular microbiology labs in that department. I’d always been very interested in those, so though I did my PhD technically in biochemistry, I always say it was in molecular microbiology. I was basically exposed to a broad range of topics all of which were really fascinating, including bacterial communication, virulence and protein secretion, and went from there. So it would probably be fairest to describe it as a classical molecular microbiology PhD.

So although your degree was natural sciences/biochemistry, you didn’t necessarily need to change discipline?

My degree was officially biochemistry, but when I chose my project options and ultimately my PhD, I chose to do the biochemistry with the microbiology behind it. You always need a question, and although the techniques were biochemistry, the questions were microbiological

Would you say the questions from your PhD led you into what you work on now in your own lab?

They certainly contributed, some of the organisms I work on now I had first encountered during my PhD, though I actually started working on protein secretion a bit more during my first postdoc. My PhD was more about how bacteria interact with each other, working as communities and not acting alone. Then during my first postdoc, I focused more on protein secretion systems. I then started a postdoc with Frank Sargent in Dundee where I worked on protein export. I learnt a lot more biochemistry and different techniques but still transported across the envelope which I was sure I was really interested in. When I set up my lab, I chose the Type VI secretion system because I was aware of it as a new protein secretion system at the time and that nobody had looked at it in the family of organisms I was interested in and familiar with. Fairly quickly in the Type VI story it became clear that it is really important in interbacterial interactions and competition, and that was fantastic because it let me go back to my old interest which I’d always had in how bacteria coexist and communicate.

You mentioned that you did a postdoc in Dundee prior to starting your own lab, did you find it difficult progressing academically while staying at the same university?

That’s a really interesting question because a lot of the perceived wisdom is that you can’t set up your own independent lab in the same place or that it’s not a good idea. The key point as to why it worked for me was that it was completely distinct from the work in my previous lab, so there was never any question that I would be competing or overlapping. It was a different organism, with different techniques and approaches, so although it was in the same place I was clearly able to say; “this is mine, and I am independent”.

Is there any advice that you would give your early career self or to current ECRs?

To current ECRs, I would say that in terms of pursuing a career in academic science, if it is really what you want to do then go for it! Don’t think that your personal situation should in any way preclude you from doing that. Because I think that the stereotypes of all the things you must do and those that are too hard, are all falling down. So just go for it. I would also add that I’m not in any way saying that having children and an academic career is easy, there are moments of mad chaos, you think there is never enough time in the world, but it’s wonderful chaos and I wouldn’t change it. There are huge challenges but ultimately both the science career and the children are worth every minute of it.

Finally, what does winning the Fleming prize mean to you?

It was a huge surprise, one of the nicest surprises I’ve had. I’m hugely honoured because I’ve been a member of the society since I was a PhD student. The Microbiology Society and microbiology community in the UK is amazing and I’ve always felt extremely supported. To then receive this kind of recognition for what I’ve been trying to do, and more importantly what everyone in my lab has been doing - science is a team exercise and I can’t take all the credit - I was delighted and truly honoured.

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Image: University of Dundee.