St. Aloysius School (secondary); Cork Institute of Technology (undergrad); University College Cork (postgrad)
BSc (Hons) Nutrition and Health Science
I did a placement during my undergrad in the University of Teramo in Italy, studying the molecular biology (DNA and RNA) of foods that are fermented by bacteria and yeasts such as cheese, wine, beer, olives and salami. Before going back to study science in college, I worked in hotel reservations, customer care, as a receptionist and as a technical writer.
- APC Microbiome Ireland
- Vision 1 Lab, Teagasc Moorepark
- Department of Microbiology, University College Cork
Favourite thing to do in science: Having the ‘a-ha’ moment when an experiment finally works (after several unsuccessful attempts and intense troubleshooting)
About Me: I’m 29, a mam of one and PhD student studying microbiology (so the science of small microscopic living things like bacteria, fungi and viruses)
I live in Co. Cork with my partner and daughter. Between my PhD, family and house renovations I have verrrrry little free time, but I like reading, music, boardgames and movies. My pronouns are she/her.
Graduation day! 🎓🙌
Waiting to meet Minnie Mouse at Disneyland 🐭
Some of the lovely people I work with in the lab 👩🔬👨💻👨🔬👩💻
My Work: I am studying bacteria, how they talk to one another using special chemical signals, and how we might be able to interrupt their conversations using new drugs in order to control problematic bacteria that can cause disease.
A lot of the time, we think about bacteria as free-living, swimming around. But frequently, and likely mostly in nature, they occur as biofilms – sticky, slimy masses containing different species of bacteria, living within a fortress of proteins, carbohydrates and DNA attached to one another, especially surfaces. This slime helps the bacteria stick together and protects them from threats, such as antibiotics or our bodies’ immune cells. Biofilms can form in food processing factories and allow dangerous bacteria to contaminate food and make us sick, or they can form on medical tubes or artificial joints (like hip replacements), potentially causing difficult-to-treat infections that don’t respond to antibiotics.
I am studying how bacteria communicate with one another using small molecules to make group decisions – this process is called quorum sensing. Specifically, I am interested in developing strategies that may be able to block these communications to try to stop ‘bad’ bacteria from forming biofilms or help to get rid of existing biofilms.
My Typical Day: I spend my time in the laboratory growing different kinds of bacteria and measuring how well they grow, how much the different bacteria talk with one another using small chemical substances, and how much biofilm (sticky slime) they can form. I then bring my data back to the student office where I analyse it to see if any of the new treatments are effective.
7.30am: Get up, have breakfast with my sprog and get us both ready for the day 🧒👩🔬
8.30am: Drop my daughter into crèche 🎒🖍️🧸
8:40am: Into work, grab some coffee and a scone and check emails and my plans for the day 🖥️☕
9:00am: I will prepare growth media (food) for my bacteria 🦠 – sometimes I grow them in liquid broths, other times I grow them in petri dishes on agar jelly. To make sure there are no other bacteria in the media it must be heated to very high temperature and pressure in a machine called an autoclave 🌡️
10.00am: I’ll go out to the freezer 🥶 to take out the bacteria I will be testing today. I take a tiny bit of the frozen bacteria and put it into fresh growth media and put them in a warm incubator to grow.
10.30am: Quick tea break with friends ☕
10.50am: Back to the student office. I’ll need to write up my lab notebook with the details of the experiments I am running. I’ll also use the computer to analyse my data to see if there are any interesting and/or significant patterns and prepare reports or presentations 💻
11.30am: Into the lab again to look at the bacteria I started growing yesterday. I’ll need to stain them with a special purple dye to measure how good they were at making biofilms and sticking to the plate 🔬
12.30pm: Lunch break 🍝
1.00pm: Reading and writing time – while there is lots of labwork to be done, it’s also important to keep reading new scientific papers and practice academic writing.
2.00pm: Lab talk time! My lab group has a weekly meeting where we take turns presenting the results of our experiments or reviewing interesting scientific papers. This gives us great practice in public speaking, analysing other people’s data and asking questions.
3.30pm: Quick tea break ☕
3.45pm: Back into the lab for the last few bits of work of the day. I need to prepare some extracts of my bacteria, and start growing the bacteria I’ll need for tomorrows experiment 🦠
5.30pm: Finish up the work for the day – respond to emails, plan the work for tomorrow, close all the tabs on my browser! 📧
6pm: Pick up my kiddo from creche 🥰 and head home to get dinner ready 🍝
What I'd do with the money: Buy a load of Foldscopes (cheap portable microscopes); bring them into classrooms; hunt biofilms!
Microbiology is such an interesting and exciting field, but one of the major barriers is that a lot of the equipment is expensive and not possible to bring into classrooms.
Foldscopes are these great handheld cardboard microscopes 🔬 designed by researchers from Stanford that can magnify specimens up to 140x. They also allow you to capture still images or even videos using the camera on your mobile phone.
If I won the money, I’d use it to purchase lots Foldscope kits (they can be as cheap as €1 – €2 per Foldscope). I’d use the remainder of the money to trial out some dyes that are safe to use in the classroom and help to identify biofilms under the microscope 🦠.
Ultimately I’d like to involve primary and secondary school students with a biofilm-hunting activity. This could be seeing how often can we find biofilms in different environments, for example if we look on our teeth 🤓, or in taps or drains 🚰 – the data could help guide our future research.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Open-minded, passionate, sarcastic
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Disneyland Paris with my kiddo
What did you want to be after you left school?
I wasn't sure
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Not really, perhaps just some library fines
What was your favourite subject at school?
Loved Biology, Chemistry and Physics, but also really enjoyed Spanish and Art. Irish, Maths and English weren't too bad either
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Working in research – it can be scary and frustrating but is also incredibly exciting and it is a real privilege; I feel especially lucky to work with a really sound bunch of people in my research lab and institute. I am at the start of my PhD so I am hoping that the best is yet to come…
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
1) Great teachers and lecturers over the years. 2) My Dad – he always encouraged me in science and maths, and in later life he suffered a lot with his health, especially recurrent infections that were very likely caused by biofilms. I’d have given anything to come up with new treatments for him. 3) My daughter – between antimicrobial resistance and climate change, I am deeply troubled about the state of the planet and society we are leaving to her and future generations.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
Maybe a bioartist?
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) Hermione Granger’s Time Turner (there aren’t enough hours in the day) 2) To be able to talk to my Dad again, really miss being able to tell him stories or ask for advice. 3) To find a way to solve the issue of plastic pollution, especially microplastics.
Tell us a joke.
I bought the world’s worst thesaurus yesterday. Not only is it terrible, it’s terrible.
I work with a lot of bacteria that are very good at making biofilms and sticking to things. This petri dish contains a bacteria called Listeria that makes lovely turquoise-blue colonies, but would make you very sick if you ate it.
Each of these circular wells contains bacteria, like Listeria, that are growing in liquid and can stick to the bottom of the well by making biofilm.
To measure how good the bacteria are at making biofilm and sticking to the plate, I use a special purple stain.
I dissolve all of the purple in a liquid…
…then I use a machine called a spectrophotometer, which measures how ‘purple’ each well is, so I can figure out how each bacteria was at making biofilms.
I am looking for new drugs or substances made by ‘good’ bacteria that can help stop biofilms being formed by ‘bad’ bacteria. I grow lots of different bacteria on big square petri dishes – each spot is a different type of bacteria (I need to work beside a bunsen burner to stop any bacteria or fungi in the air contaminating my petri dishes)
When the bacteria have grown up, I cover them with a layer of agar jelly that contains a special bacteria. These bacteria talk to one another using special chemicals and when they can tell that there are lots of them present, they make a really nice purple colour.
In this petri dish, you can see two clear spots around two of the bacteria I was testing. It means that those bacteria might be making something that prevents the purple bacteria from talking to oneanother and stopping them from making the purple colour. This could be important because ‘bad’ bacteria that make us sick often talk to one another to decide to make biofilms
When I find interesting bacteria, I extract and amplify a piece of their DNA and make it run through a gel using electricity – each of the white lines in the middle represents a different bacteria. This lets me figure out what species of bacteria they are.
This picture comes from work by colleagues (Dobson et al, 2011). They found bacteria producing a tiny toxin called a bacteriocin that kills other bacteria.