Membership Q&A

Issue: Mind-altering microbes

10 February 2015 article

This is a regular column to introduce our members. This issue, we’re pleased to introduce Kerstin Voelz.

Where are you currently based?

I am currently based at the Institute of Microbiology and Infection at the School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham. I joined as a postdoctoral researcher in 2010 and was appointed to my current position as Lecturer in Eukaryotic Microbiology in June this year.

What is your area of specialism?

In broad terms, infectious disease and eukaryotic microbiology.

And more specifically?

My lab is interested in host–pathogen interactions, particularly in the interaction between fungal pathogens and the innate immune system. We focus on a fungal infection called mucormycosis and want to understand how the host immune system tries to fight off the fungus while, at the same time, the fungus manipulates the host immune response to its advantage. We are using zebrafish larvae as an exciting new live whole animal model system to investigate this interaction in real-time.

Tell us about your education to date

I went to school in Germany. I always enjoyed maths and physics. Though, initially, I didn’t like biology very much. However, that changed when we started discussing more aspects of cellular and molecular biology and also microbiology at secondary school. Hence, I found it very difficult to decide which university degree to pursue. Looking into the timetables, it seemed that biology had a great mix of STEM subjects and so I decided to do an undergraduate degree in Biology at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany. I then moved to the UK in 2007 to do my PhD in host–pathogen interactions under the supervision of Professor Robin May at the University of Birmingham.

Where did your interest in microbiology come from?

It developed over time, I guess. There was a strong focus on microbiology in my undergraduate studies and I very much enjoyed the lectures and practical classes in this context. My final year undergraduate thesis was also on a microbiological topic. All together it strengthened my interest and encouraged me to further develop my career in microbiology.

What are the professional challenges that present themselves and how do you try to overcome them?

In the past couple of years, becoming independent was probably one of the biggest challenges. What really helped me were persistence, initiative and the guts to take unexpected opportunities. For example, about a year ago, I was talking to a colleague at a conference about my research ideas and we discussed a research visit to his lab in the USA so that I could learn how to use a new model system, the zebrafish larvae. All this came very unexpectedly, but at the same time I thought – this is an amazing opportunity. I had to use my initiative to find financial support for the research visit – part of which I received through the Society’s President’s Fund (now the Research Visit Grants scheme). It all paid off; I had a great time and the work I conducted during my visit laid the foundation for my own research group.

The current challenges are more about juggling teaching versus research and the responsibilities that come with having my own research group. It helps a lot that I had already been teaching over the past few years and enjoy the contact with students. So that is not really a problem. I find the responsibility towards my group much more challenging. The current job market is incredibly competitive and students struggle to find PhDs and/or employment thereafter. I often ask myself: how can I support them best so that their hopes and expectations are being fulfilled? I try to be sympathetic and reassuring. It helps that I have an understanding and supportive mentor to discuss these aspects with.

What is the best part about “doing science”?

"The Friday Evening Experiment" – by that I mean those experiments you wonder if they are worth doing because they are unlikely to work. However, your curiosity convinces you to “just give it a go” and you get an exciting and unexpected result that opens up so many new questions to investigate.

Who is your role model?

My PhD and postdoc supervisor, Professor Robin May. I am very grateful to have been trained under his supervision and to have been introduced to his collaborative, open and friendly approach to science. It made me believe that everyone working together leads to the best results and in the context of science can enable big progress. For example, exchanging research findings with colleagues within and outside your own field can put your results in a very different light and open up new avenues.

What do you do to relax?

I climb. I sometimes find it difficult to switch off as my mind is always buzzing. I am constantly trying to figure out things, e.g. finding new ways to answer a scientific question, developing new research ideas. Climbing helps me to switch off by focusing my mind on something completely different. At the same time it can be physically very demanding and a way of releasing any frustration.

What one record and luxury item would you take to a desert island?

I love 1980s music. Being on a desert island, this cheesy kind of music would be uplifting. As for the luxury item, I would probably take a fully equipped boat – that way I could always attempt to make my way back. Something similar to Craig Venter’s Sorcerer II would be great. It wouldn’t matter how long I take to get back as I could do some research on-board in the meantime.

Tell us one thing that your work colleagues won’t know about you!

I am trained in how to deal with potential polar bear attacks. A few years back I went up to a research station on the arctic island Svalbard (or Spitsbergen). There is always a chance, though very small, of encountering a polar bear while being out on fieldwork. Hence, researchers need to do a "polar bear and weapon for protection" course.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?

I would own and work in a little café in the countryside – I love baking cakes.

If you would like to be featured in this section or know someone who may, contact Paul Easton, Acting Head of Membership Services, at [email protected]