Siouxsie Wiles was first captivated by medical microbiology during her undergraduate degree. Now she channels her own enthusiasm to ‘demystify science’ for others through popular blogs, books and animations.
|Name||Dr Siouxsie Wiles (was Susanna Wiles)|
|Degree Course||BSc(Hons) Medical Microbiology|
|Year of Graduation||1997|
Your time at the University
I fell in love with Edinburgh the moment I stepped off the train at Waverley Station and out onto Princes Street. I’d come for an open day and had never seen such a beautiful city. While I still had another four universities to visit on my ‘tour’, from that day my heart was set on studying at the University of Edinburgh.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time living in Edinburgh, and even though I now live on the other side of the world (I married a New Zealander), I try to get back to Edinburgh for a brief visit every couple of years.
It was while studying at Edinburgh that I discovered my passion for nasty microbes. I was in my first year and thought I would specialise in genetics. That year though, I read two books that made a great impression on me. The first was the ‘The Fireside Book of Deadly Diseases’ by psychiatrist Robert Wilkins, a treasure trove of facts and anecdotes that detail the influence of infectious diseases on both people and the course of history.
The second was ‘The Hot Zone’ by Richard Preston, which describes the discovery of the Reston strain of the Ebola virus in a primate quarantine facility in Reston, Virginia, a stone’s throw from Washington, DC. I was fascinated by the tales of deadly microbes, of how some bacteria and viruses are able to kill a healthy person, sometimes in just a few days. I ditched genetics and ended up specialising in medical microbiology and the rest, as they say, is history.
I spent my first few summers working behind the bar in pubs, but between my third and final year I was awarded a Nuffield summer scholarship and got my first real taste of doing scientific research, working in the lab of Professor Andrew Hudson from the School of Biological Sciences.
One of my most vivid memories of that summer happened while doing some sequencing of one of the genes Prof Hudson was interested in. Back then we used these big expensive glass panels when we sequenced a gene; nowadays we just send the gene away and a few days later we get an email back with the sequence. I was rinsing one of these plates in the sink, while Prof Hudson stood next to me chatting. Just as he started to tell me to be careful that I didn’t break the plate on the sink, ‘there was a loud ‘crrrrrrrk’ and a big crack shot up the panel.
I was mortified, but Prof Hudson was very sweet and said he shouldn’t have been distracting me. It turns out I wasn’t the first person in the lab to break one, although for the rest of the summer I was known as ‘Smasher’. ‘
Tell us about your Experiences since leaving the University
After graduating with a First Class degree I headed to a research institute in Oxford to do my PhD. During my studies I developed ‘biosensors’ for monitoring the health of microbes that clean up the wastewater from an industrial process.
While enjoyable, a PhD in environmental microbiology was enough to make me realise that infectious microbes were where my interests really lay, so for my first postdoctoral position I moved to Imperial College London to work with a group studying how Mycobacterium tuberculosis causes the lung disease tuberculosis (TB). Here is where I began to carve out the niche that has become my career - combining my interest in infectious diseases with that of bioluminescence, the production of light by living creatures.
In a nutshell, my lab makes nasty bacteria glow in the dark to better understand how microbes cause disease, and to find new antibiotics to stop them. Instead of waiting for our bacteria to physically grow on petri dishes, which can take weeks or even months for some of them, we can measure the number of bacteria present using light.
The more bacteria there are, the brighter the light. The chemical reaction which produces light also requires energy so only living cells glow; if the bacteria are killed, the lights go out
I was fascinated by the tales of deadly microbes, of how some bacteria and viruses are able to kill a healthy person, sometimes in just a few days.
I was appointed as a lecturer at Imperial in 2007, but in 2009 I was awarded a Sir Charles Hercus Fellowship from the Health Research Council of New Zealand and relocated to the University of Auckland, where I head up the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab.
Since arriving in New Zealand I have gone on to combine being an active researcher with a growing passion for communicating science to the public. I am a blogger and podcaster, have a fortnightly science slot on our national radio station, and regularly appear on TV and radio to explain science stories that make the news.
In 2011 I began collaborating with Australian graphic artist, Luke Harris, and his team, to make a series of short animations describing natures amazing glowing creatures and the myriad uses of bioluminescence in science. Our animation on NASA’s use of fireflies to search for extra-terrestrial life was selected to be shown at the 6th Imagine Science Film Festival in New York in 2013 and the Goethe Institute’s 2014 Science Film Festival where it will be screened in Myanmar, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan and Palestine.
After seeing my animation on the Hawaiian bobtail squid, I was contacted by artist Rebecca Klee to work on installations for Auckland’s annual Art in the Dark Festival.
For my commitment to demystifying science I was awarded the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) Science Communication Prize in 2012 and the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Prize for Science Media Communication and the Royal Society of New Zealand Callaghan Medal in 2013.
I am currently writing a children’s book about bioluminescence with my 8 year old daughter.
Enjoy your time at University. Use it to explore what you are interested in and most importantly, don’t wait for things to happen to you - make your own opportunities!