Membership Q&A

Issue: Mycobacteria

27 August 2014 article

This is a regular column to introduce our members. This issue, we’re pleased to introduce Geertje van Keulen.

Where are you currently based?

In 2010 I joined the Institute of Life Science in the College of Medicine at Swansea University where I was promoted to Associate Professor last year.

What is your area of specialism?

Microbial biochemistry would probably best fit my areas of research.

And more specifically?

My research group now focuses on natural antibiosis in pristine and polluted soil environments in order to find novel antibiotics, as well as gain knowledge on how the original producing micro-organisms use antibiotics and other bioactive compounds. This will also help to understand the processes of natural and harmful spreading of antibiotic resistance. We also study how microbes use functional amyloid proteins to selectively modulate the wettability of their own and environmental surfaces, a property which we are further exploiting by developing protein coatings for steel and other materials in collaboration with engineers. We also study how microbes adapt to drying, water-repellent, semi-natural soils and how they affect the hydrology, flooding potential and carbon sequestration in these soils from nano to larger field scales, using a range of metagenomic, metaproteomic, ‘metametabolomic’, high-resolution imaging and modelling techniques in collaboration with soil scientists, hydrologists and nanotechnologists.

Tell us about your education to date

I completed my education in The Netherlands. I was first inspired by science by my chemistry teacher in secondary school. I enjoyed chemistry and the molecular aspects of biology from the first day I was taught these disciplines, and luckily had a mind for it too! I then studied for an MSci in Chemistry at the University of Groningen, majoring in Biochemistry. I enjoyed my student research project on DNA-protein interactions and the effects on gene expression so much that I wanted to continue in this field. I applied for and was offered a research trainee (‘AIO’) job, which is typical for obtaining a Dutch-style higher degree. As a result I gained my PhD in Microbial Physiology by studying chemoautotrophic CO2 fixation by linking signals from changes in physiological status to changes in gene expression.

Where did your interest in microbiology come from?

I have always followed my interests, which are wide-ranging and changing over time. With microbes being so versatile, omnipresent and affecting so many earthly and human processes, it was only logical that microbiology in the broadest way has become my livelihood.

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

I have encountered challenges in my education and at several stages in my career. I have dealt with these by developing stamina, self-belief, including sometimes going against advice if I felt it was not right for me, and confidence to be persistent in what I wanted to achieve. At times it felt impossible to overcome hurdles. By being creative, open to opportunities and having good mentoring I have usually found a way around hurdles, as you don’t always have to go over them.

I also find that gender equality is still a professional challenge at my current stage of career. Changing inappropriate, sometimes unconscious, behaviour is all about calling it out and putting it in the open, in the hope that in the near future opportunities will be equal for all at all stages in education and career progression. The Society is leading the way with their equality policy backed up with action by supporting initiatives aimed to promote equality in career and personal development. As co-organiser of the first Soapbox Science event in Wales, I am very grateful for the Society’s support, allowing us to present the female face of science to the public on the street.

What is the best part about ‘doing science’?

The never-ending cycle of hypothesis-experiments-results-new hypothesis. There is always something new and exciting emerging on the horizon to be studied.

Who is your role model?

I would say that both Professor Lubbert Dijkhuizen, one of my PhD supervisors/line-managers, and Professor Sir David Hopwood, eminent microbiologist pur sang, have been a major influence on me and my view of science, scientists and society. Lubbert has shown me how you can accomplish top-notch ‘blue-skies’ research effectively in combination with applied, industrial projects and sponsors, with entrepreneurial spirit and keeping society in mind. David has been truly fundamental in creating an inclusive and innovative research community, in which collaboration and sharing knowledge or materials is the gold standard between scientists and industrial groupings all over the world.

What do you do to relax?

I swim a lot with my local Masters swimming and triathlon clubs and I try to make it to water polo practice with the Welsh Wanderers as much as I can. Swimming can put me in a mode of trance, while water polo has been good for releasing built-up anger and irritation. When the weather is good, we try to enjoy the stunning Welsh outdoors as much as possible.

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

I like listening to talk radio so I would probably take a record of a lively philosophical discussion. I am going to steal the luxury item from someone who was on Desert Island Discs lately, which is a bath – as this sounded very practical and versatile: for use as a clean bed or shelter, for collecting water, to keep caught fish alive in, and for enjoying a bath of course! If I have to come up with something myself I would like to bring my e-reader with a photovoltaic battery charger and thousands of books uploaded to keep me busy.

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

My voice features on two tracks of an early album of the Norwich-based band ‘Army of Mice’, which was started up by two microbiologists from the Institute of Food Research Drs Chris Bond and Mark Reuter.

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

Long-distance trucker.

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]

Image: Geertje van Keulen, with props demonstrating to the public her research on microbial environmental materials science on the beach at the first Soapbox Science event in Swansea Bay, Wales..