Dr Emma Stevenson

Published on: 17 May 2017

You can follow Dr Stevenson on Twitter

Do bacteria decide what they are going to do once they get into the human body? How? Dr Emma Stevenson hopes that her research will help to prevent serious infections caused by a particular type of bacterium.

Dr Stevenson is a Research Associate in Bacterial Signaling in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences

What is your current research about?

My current research is about understanding how a bacterium called Pseudomonas aeruginosa decides to cause different types of infection within the human body. This bacterium can cause severe infections in people with burns, those with catheters and artificial joints and also readily colonises patients who have Cystic Fibrosis (CF); a severely life limiting disease of the lungs. However, it doesn’t cause the same type of infection in each case. Pseudomonas aeruginosa uses its surrounding environment to ‘decide’ what type of infection it is going to cause.

This is a very complex process and not all of it is understood. My project focuses on specific proteins within Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and how they are linked to the decision of the bacterium to commit to very different infection cycles.

How can a member of the public understand the impact of this research?

Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a real problem in hospitals. This is because it usually causes infection in people who are already unwell. When Pseudomonas aeruginosa gets inside the lungs of a Cystic Fibrosis patient, it can form a very stable (chronic) infection. It can make the patient feel even more unwell because it can be difficult to treat with lifesaving antibiotics.

This can lead to lung deterioration over time. The research I am doing will help to understand how Pseudomonas aeruginosa causes a stable infection, so that in the future compounds can be developed that will prevent it from doing so, and hopefully prolonging the life of the patient with Cystic Fibrosis.

The Soapbox Science event is an outreach platform for promoting women scientists; who were your inspiring female role models?

Whilst none of my direct supervisors have been women, I have met plenty of inspiring role models during my career. Particularly, Dr Sarah Kuehne (University of Birmingham) who has achieved some fantastic research during her career, resulting in articles in the journal Nature. She has a fantastic work ethic and has even managed to achieve a good work-life balance, which is always difficult the more you progress up the career ladder. During my PhD and my current post-doc, I work/ed with some great female academics.

Dr Olivia Champion, who is now CEO of a spin out company - Biosystems Technology) from the University of Exeter, using Galleria melonella as a non-animal infection model. Dr Sariqa Wagley who is about to start on a project on which she is co-investigator. Dr Monika Bokori-Brown who is co-inventor on a patent covering candidate toxoids for vaccines against enterotoxaemia and is about to submit an application for BBSRC David Phillips fellowship. Others who are equally inspiring include Dr Claudia Hemsley and Dr Vanessa Francis, all of whom I work with now, and all of which are determined female academics. Each of these women balances hectic work/social and family lives to achieve the most in their careers.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you will be talking about at the upcoming Soapbox event?

In a nut shell I would like to explain to people that even though we can’t see bacteria with the naked eye, they are very complex organisms. They actually make decisions about the way they live and particularly what they are going to do once inside the human body.

What are your top tips for academics who want to communicate their research?

Always try communication activities that are outside of your comfort zone. For me, speaking to the public is nerve wracking. But I love meeting the variety of people at events like SoapBox Science, because you get asked all sorts of interesting questions about your work and makes you realise people do care about what you do.

Related links

» Exeter Soapbox Science

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