The centenary of microbiology in Trinity, celebrated in the College on October 24th and 25th, is commemorated in the perfect way: a meeting of the world’s leading scientists – organised by the Europe-wide Microbiology Society – honouring a discipline that members say has a crucial role to play in the advancement of modern medicine.
Dr Joan Geoghegan, an assistant professor of microbiology in Trinity and the co-organiser of the campaign, tells The University Times in an email that the event is “an opportunity to highlight the central role that microbes play in modern medicine as infectious agents and to look at how microbes, and their products, can be used to treat disease”.
Describing what it means to be celebrating 100 years of microbiology, Geoghan says: “It is wonderful to be part of a department which has influenced the fields of microbiology and medicine in such a profound way. This conference was an opportunity to acknowledge historical achievements, to celebrate where we are today, and to look to the future of microbiology and the central place the discipline will hold in countering global health challenges in the future.”
Geoghegan isn’t the only one excited by a celebration that touches on everything from the history of the discipline to the importance of gut health. Everywhere you look there are researchers discussing every aspect of the discipline. At the Microbiology Roadshow, which takes place in the Moyne Institute a day before the start of the conference proper, Judith Armitage, the president of the Microbiology Society, gives a rousing account of her experiences doing a PhD as a woman in the 1970s, explaining how she overcame stigmas to build a successful career. “Never forget a weird result”, she tells those assembled in the Moyne Institute. Strange findings, she says, can often be the missing piece of the puzzle.
The Moyne Institute is the heart of microbiology in Trinity. It is a grand, copper-roofed building with a great domed ceiling and Sicilian marble flooring. It houses research and teaching laboratories, offices and, to the microbiologists, it’s a second home.
The centenary of microbiology in Trinity, celebrated in the College on October 24th and 25th, is commemorated in the perfect way: a meeting of the world’s leading scientists
Speaking to The University Times over email, Dr Carsten Kroger, an assistant professor of microbiology at Trinity, says: “I think we have a real sense of community in our department, because we are a small department living in the Moyne Institute and you get to know everyone very quickly.”
Prof Gordon Dougan, from Cambridge University, is a former Trinity lecturer. In the 1980s, he recalls, bands would perform on the steps of the Moyne while students enjoyed the music on the cricket pitch.
Trinity may be hosting the conference, but its remit extends far beyond the College’s walls, touching on everything from antibiotic resistance to the importance of the human microbiota. Microbiome research, which covers many things related to the human gut, stands out as an issue of particular relevance. Vanessa Las Heras, a postdoctoral research scientist in University College Cork (UCC), discusses the impact of diet on humans’ ability to withstand infection, explaining that increasing the amount of high-fat, ready-to-eat meat products you consume can increase your chances of acquiring bacterial infection listeriosis. This can happen, she warns, in as short a time span as two weeks – a typical holiday length, in other words.
It’s an issue with particular relevance for elderly people, the conference hears, in an example of its moving beyond a celebration and into an exploration of topics with real-world significance. Among the elderly, those who live at home and make their own food will have a more diverse microbiome than those who live in nursing homes and have their food prepared for them, according to Prof Paul O’Toole of UCC.
Dr Sinead Corr, an assistant professor of microbiology in Trinity and the group leader of the College’s microbiome and mucosal immunity lab, tells The University Times that “there is a growing scientific and public awareness of the importance of a healthy gut microbiome”. Corr reinforces how influential our microbiota is: “The microbiome has diverse and far-reaching impacts on human health. It influences almost every aspect of human physiology and wellbeing.”
Corr says there’s a “huge drive to figure out exactly how the microbiome influences human health, what lifestyle choices impact the microbiome and how do changes in the microbiome associate with development of disease. With this knowledge we can then try to manipulate the microbiome, for example through diet, to promote health”.
Knowledge, and its dissemination, are at the heart of the conference. It features not only well-established researchers but also early career microbiologists presenting the findings of their research. Meetings like these, organised by the Microbiology Society, give scientists at the outset of their careers a chance to bring their research to a wide audience. Kroger writes that “it’s always great to see the next generation of talented researchers showcasing their work at an international conference. It’s very courageous, too, because it can be a daunting task”.
Interdisciplinary research is a topic that comes up often among the conference’s keynote speakers. For Kroger, “research today is very much a team effort”, while Armitage says at the roadshow that it’s important to “never underestimate collaborations within science”.
During the conference, Kroger gives a presentation on his current research – which is focused on salmonella – and ends his talk smilingly advising the audience to “hold onto good bioinformaticians”.
The Moyne Institute is the heart of microbiology in Trinity. It houses research and teaching laboratories, offices and, to the microbiologists, it’s a second home
For all that the microbiology community is international, though, it’s also local. For Corr, being part of College’s close-knit research community means being exposed to an atmosphere of collaboration that improves the quality of one’s own work. Trinity, she says, “has an exciting and dynamic environment. You are constantly exposed to cutting edge research performed by exceptional scientists”. She adds that “a lot of great ideas are formed over a coffee with colleagues”.
Members of the Department of Microbiology radiate enthusiasm for their work. The excitement and dedication of the professors becomes clear in conversations about why they do what they do. Geoghegan writes that “I have always been fascinated by the idea that the majority of life on our planet is invisible to the naked eye. Training as a microbiologist gave me an opportunity to delve into this invisible world”. For Kroger, it’s “fascinating to me what these tiny organisms can do”.
The 100th anniversary of microbiology in Trinity is an event that showcases microbiology at its most international as well as its most local. It gives scientists an opportunity to network and learn from each other in an atmosphere that’s celebratory and curious. As a true microbiologist might say, it runs as smoothly as Staphylococcus aureus colonies.