PhD with a difference: Microbiology, school science and science communication

Well, WordPress, its been a while. Just days before christmas I successfully defended my PhD Viva. I immediately  started my new job as a medical writer for a digital healthcare communication agency in Manchester (will hopefully blog about this soon), and since then have been pretty busy doing various things. But now, I’m back! So, how better to begin my new wave of blogging than by summing up the last four years of my life. Below is an article I wrote for the Society for General Microbiology quarterly magazine Microbiology Today May 2014 issue, about how unusual, unique, yet excitingly cross-discipline my doctorate is. Have a read.

PhD with a difference 🙂

In December 2013 I completed my PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University, part funded and supported by the Society for General Microbiology. This was the accumulation of three years’ work combining microbiology, school science education and science communication. The project aimed to develop novel, exciting, and reliable microbiology laboratory activities that would be published and distributed to SGM member schools to help promote and encourage microbiology in the classroom.

Our early investigations discovered that there was very little analysis in the literature of the current status of practical microbiology in the school laboratory. A survey of 248 teachers [1], revealed that only two thirds of teachers believed practical work was important in teaching microbiology and a similar number actually used practical microbiology in their teaching. Many of the limitations to teaching practical microbiology described (both real and perceived) included time constraints, cost, lack of equipment, lack of expertise and not enough support available. It was also clear that teachers focused on the relevance of all practical activities to the details of the curriculum, and that there was considerable demand for support from professional societies, and the expertise of their members.

With this information to hand, I developed the resource entitled Algae: a practical resource for secondary schools [2], which contained five well-tested activities that supported many science curricula taught in the UK and aimed to address limitations faced by teachers. Written with consideration to current pedagogical thinking and the philosophy of science, the resource underwent stringent trialling (for design, readability, usability, ability to run activities successfully) with a range of audiences (including students, teachers and the public). An 18-month follow-up survey of users showed that the resource was being used as intended and that the activities were able to support topics across biology in over 22 biology teaching specifications (data which I am planning to publish soon!).

A second resource ‘Viruses: a practical resource for post-16’ [3] was developed following a similar process. The aim of this resource was to encourage the use of bacteriophage in schools, as an example of a relatively easy to handle virus, as well as PCR. This has been sent to all SGM school members and we hope for similar positive evaluation.

As well as my work on practical microbiology for schools, I have designed and delivered a number of microbiology science communications activities at festivals and events across the country, many in collaboration and support with the SGM. Most notably, I redesigned an activity from the Algae resource so that it could be delivered to over 2000 individuals comprising different audiences in different environments [4]. This was the main activity for which I was awarded joint-winner of the SGM Outreach Prize 2013 – for which I am very grateful.

Bound thesis

Bound and finished :p

I couldn’t have completed the PhD without the time and effort of my supervisory team, particularly Prof Joanna Verran (MMU) and Dariel Burdass (SGM). My aim over the last four years was to promote the science of microbiology to a variety of school audiences. I think I have made a good start, but we must continue to build on and encourage projects like this to ensure that others can share our love of all things microbiology!


[1] REDFERN, J., BURDASS, D. & VERRAN, J. 2013. Practical microbiology in schools: a survey of UK teachers. Trends in Microbiology. 21(11), 557-559.

[2] REDFERN, J. 2014. Viruses: a practical resource for post 16 biology teachers. Reading, UK, Society for General Microbiology. ISBN: 978-0-9536838-4-0.

[3] REDFERN, J. 2012. Algae: a practical resource for secondary schools. Reading, UK, Society for General Microbiology. ISBN: 978-0-9536838-7-1.

[4] REDFERN, J., BURDASS, D. & VERRAN, J. 2013. Transforming a school learning exercise into a public engagement event: “The Good, the Bad and The Algae”. Journal of Biological Education, 47(4), 246-252.

For more of my publications see my CV page

TEDx Albertopolis – The tale of two cultures (and antibiotic resistance)

Having been watching TEDx talks via YouTube for quite some time, when I discovered a TEDx event was being held at the Royal Albert Hall, all about the interaction of science and art , I knew I wanted to go. Fortunately enough, I was able to!

The day as a whole was fascinating. With talks from a range of people, discussing some fascinating stories of how the ‘two cultures’ of science and art have interacted to inspire, motivate and change peoples perceptions. I was kept intrigued for the entire five hour line up! Some highlights for me were:

  • The power of seaweed – Julia Lohmann.
    Julia is design resident at the V&A. Upon a trip to Japan Julia encountered a particular type of seaweed, and using the mystical artistic abilities I seem to lack, was able to see past the ‘green stuff’ and enlighten the world with its unusual properties. Julia discovered that you could grow the seaweed and use it a little like Papier Mâché, turning the usually non-descript seaweed into some amazing sculptures.
  • Tourette’s syndrome: the alchemy of chaos – Jessica Thom
    As soon as Jessica came on stage she explained she had Tourette’s syndrome, and most importantly, it was OK  for us to laugh. In between bouts of biscuit and hamster-based ticks, Jessica explained that not only was it funny that she randomly shouts buscuit and hamster a lot, but it would be weird if people didn’t laugh, immediately putting the audience at ease as the “are we allowed to laugh?” thought secretly whizzed through peoples minds.  Jessicas story is all about using her Tourette’s to make music. Through her group ‘Tourette’s Heros‘ allows people to see the humor behind the syndrome. You can hear her story here: Jessica Thom 

The drugs dont work – Prof Sally Davies

  • This was the walk I was looking forward to most – the problem with antibiotics. As someone studying and often discussing microbiology with students and the public, antibiotics is an issue I care a lot about. If you watch one YouTube video today, it should be this one. Whilst all other speakers on the day were discussing the interaction between science and art, and what they have managed to achieve with is, Prof Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England quite rightly uses her TEDx slot to discuss antibiotic resistance. The talk begins with an introduction to the grave issue: not too long in the future, we will have no drugs to fight infection. This seems a little unbelievable at first, but unfortunately it is no exaggeration. Currently, 23,000 people die every year in the US due to antibiotic resistant bacterial infections, a number which is only likely to rise. I will leave the details of the talk to the YouTube video, however, I will emphasis Prof Davies key points.

1) Antibiotics do not work for viral infection
2) When prescribed, antibitoics should be taken for the full course
3) Basic hygiene is the correct way preventing illness
4) Incentives for new drug discovery are needed
This has all recently been backed up by the first report of its kind in the US, the CDC Threat Report 2013. It is an issue that needs to be taken seriously. It is something I hope to come back to soon and blog in detail about, however, in the mean time, watch this video!

Brains@MOSI – the Museum of Science and Industry – Blogger event!

A few weeks ago I discovered that the Manchester Science Festival (MSF) was looking for bloggers. Having recently started this blog (after many years of ‘nearly’ starting one) I decided this would be a good opportunity ! After a hard day of thesis writing on Tuesday 24th September, myself and fellow sci-commer Jo Keogh put down our work and walked down to the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester, UK.

photo (1)

Upon arrival we were presented with a glass of (very nice) wine (never a bad way to begin). A couple of sips later, we got chatting to Marieke, the Science Festival director. Having had a look through the fantastic Science Festival line-up this year, I had a list of events I would be wanting to attend and blog about! Following this we were about to be presented with a very special and unique blogger event…

Brains at MOSI is a fascinating exhibition currently on display at the museum. The exhibition, part of the Wellcome Collection has been open since 26th July and will remain open to all (for free!) until the 4th January. As part of the blogging evening the MSF had put on for me and my fellow science and/or art bloggers, we were to get an extra special, after hours, personalised tour from the exhibition curator, Marius Kwint. The exhibition really is fascinating. It displays a range of specimens, art, photographs and various other pieces representing the brian.  The exhibition has relocated from London and developed a local spin, with many pieces sourced straight out of the University of Manchester, demonstrating Manchester’s history of neuroscience.

For me the event was not what I had expected, as a biologist I am used to thinking of the brain in a very particular, anatomical way. Seeing the specimens of brains knocking around took me back to my days in my American anatomy class, poking human brains trying very hard to remember all the nerves, however, with the help of Marius, I started to think about things a little differently. The exhibit really does make you think about the brain past the thing that makes us think. It covers not what our brains can do for us, but more what we can do to/with our brains.

Being toured with artists and non-academic scientists really helped me appreciate the exhibit past my blinkered sciencey view, opening my eyes and imagination, making me think about something in a new way that i’m used to seeing in a particular way. All in all the evening was very enjoyable, and I am now very much looking forward to feeding back my thoughts on events taking place over the week of 24th October to 3rd November. If you haven’t done already, be sure to check out the MSF line up, its as stong as ever, offering something for all.