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


Ever heard of a Jackalope? Myth meets microbiology

Having just received an email from wordpress encouraging me to be a better blogger (!), I think I should write my first proper post. As I sit here looking at the draft of a new educational resource for post-16 education I have written (all about viruses), I think I will share some of that with you.

I have always been fascinated by scale and size of small things (which I suppose is why I love microbiology so much), but imagine living before we knew exactly what was out there? Not really understanding how tiny microscopic microbes could affect us in such a potentially devastating way! One story that caught my eye is all about linking myth with science.

Various unusual phenomena, which were at one time unexplainable, can now be attributed to microbes. One interesting story is the tale of the Jackalope (Lepus temperamentalus). First spotted in 1829 in the United States, this mythical creature is said to have the body of a rabbit with the horns of an antelope. American folklore says the creature would roam the countryside, causing chaos and playing tricks on cowboys (the Jackalope was able to imitate human voices, often repeating shepherds singing to their flock). However, people were keen to find them as their milk apparently held medicinal properties. Although they were shy animals, they could become dangerous if approached. They were very rare and not often spotted, which was said to be because they could only breed during severe electrical storms.Image

In 1933 the science underpinning this unusual, but often believed myth was brought to light. Dr Richard Shope (the man responsible for also discovering the flu virus) with the help of Dr Francis Rous determined that a virus was responsible for causing cancer in rabbits. At this time, it was unknown that viruses were able to cause cancer, so this was quite a discovery. Known as Shope papilloma virus (or SPV), infection can lead to the development of hard tumours (usually on the head), which can look like horns. It is now commonly believed that any sightings of the ‘Jackalope’ were probably an unlucky rabbit that had been infected with SPV.

The discovery of SPV provided the first model for a virus causing cancer in a mammal, and the work carried out by Rous eventually gained him the Nobel Prize in 1966. Another virus, known as Human papilloma virus (or HPV) has been identified as the cause of nearly all cases of cervical cancer in human females. Work carried out on the rabbit virus has helped researchers develop a vaccine for HPV. This vaccine was approved for human use in 2006, and has since then been used regularly throughout the world. The vaccine has been hugely successful, reducing HPV-related disease in teenage girls by up to a half. Therefore, in some unusual way, we may have a mythical singing rabbit to thank for HPV vaccination…