Turn off the lights, and I’ll glow: welcome Siouxsie Wiles to RealScientists

To the extreme, I rock the mic like a vandal… sorry, no idea what came over me there. *cough* I guess it’s because we are incandescently excited to welcome amazing NZ-based microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles of the University of Auckland to RealScientists for the coming week.
Siouxie describes herself as a microbiologist and bioluminescence enthusiast but to others she is “the owner of the pinkest head of hair you’ll ever see”. Siouxsie studied medical microbiology at the University of Edinburgh, UK and did a PhD in microbiology at CEH Oxford (formally the Institute of Virology and Environmental Microbiology). She spent her postdoctoral years at Imperial College London where her work on the bacterium Citrobacter rodentium culminated in winning the inaugural UK National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) 3Rs prize. In 2007 Siouxsie was made a lecturer at Imperial and started the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab, focusing on a number of important ‘superbugs’ including Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Streptococcus pyogenes. In 2009, Siouxsie was awarded a Sir Charles Hercus Fellowship from the Health Research Council of New Zealand and relocated to the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her continued commitment to the 3Rs led to Siouxsie being awarded the 2011 New Zealand National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee (NAEAC) 3Rs prize.
glowing petridishes
Siouxsie has a keen interest in communicating science, winning the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) Science Communication Award in 2012. She is a blogger and podcaster and has teamed up with graphic artist Luke Harris and his team to make a series of short animations describing nature’s amazing glowing creatures and the myriad uses of bioluminescence in science. Their animation on fireflies and NASA (http://youtu.be/UUUytRoI-5g) will be screened at the 6th annual Imagine Science Film Festival (http://www.imaginesciencefilms.com/) in New York in October. Together with Rebecca Klee she is working on an science-art installation for the Art In The Dark Festival in Auckland, their journey to which is documented at http://labtothepark.wordpress.com/. Siouxsie tweets at @SiouxsieW; her lab website is http://www.superbugslab.org/ and sci-blogs at http://sciblogs.co.nz/infectious-thoughts/

So she’s fairly busy, hey. Here’s some cool vids to check out. Firstly, a couple from that animation series:

And one most NZers will remember, her role in the TV ad campaign for the ‘Great NZ Science Project’, the public consulation section of the government’s National Science Challenges project:

Alright stop, collaborate and listen to our Q&A with SiouxsieW:

1. How did you end up in science?
I had a really encouraging and supportive family and biology teacher at school who encouraged me to go to university, At university, it was clear I loved research – I spent my summers working in different labs – so at some point someone suggested I do a PhD. That was when I realised people could do research for a living and my path was set.
2. What keeps you in it?
I love the process of thinking of questions and designing experiments to attempt to answer them. That and the thrill of actually getting the data and analysing it. I’m motivated by the knowledge that so many people are killed by infectious diseases – it’s about 1 out of every 3 deaths worldwide – and we desperately need better antibiotics and more vaccines.
3. What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love playing Lego and doing science experiments with my daughter. But when she is asleep, most of my spare time is spent on communicating science in some form or another, whether its blogging or writing scripts for my glowing animations.
4. Why NZ/Auckland?
I live in Ponsonby in Auckland, a lovely place full of cafes, bars and restaurants. Saying that, it does have a few too many homeopaths and chiropractors but I guess nowhere is perfect. We live walking distance from the university which was one of my criteria for moving here. We moved to Auckland from London in 2009 and after 10 years of taking the tube, I was ready to be closer to work. I work at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at the University of Auckland. The Faculty has just finished a four year building project and is looking great – we are in beautiful new open plan labs which are fantastic.
5. If you could do any project, cost no bar, what would you do?
We are actually doing the project that I have dreamed of doing for years, although a scaled down pilot version with almost no budget. If money were no object, we would scale it up! We are interested in watching how bacteria evolve during infection. Bacteria have a number of really useful characteristics that make them ideal for studying evolution: they multiply really rapidly so we can measure change in a short space of time and can be stored frozen in a sort of suspended animation, building up a living ‘fossil’ record which can be regrown and analysed at any time. We are studying the evolution of a bacterium (Citrobacter rodentium) that infects mice using the same ‘modus operandi’ as food poisoning strains of E. coli do in humans. They go in one end… and come out the other! And because mice like to eat poo (more technically known as coprophagia) they easily spread the bacterium to each other. We allow C. rodentium to spread from mouse to mouse to mouse to mouse to… you get the picture, each time freezing bacteria that are shed in the poo. We now have 7 months worth of infections in the freezer and are starting the process of finding out if the bacteria have adapted in some way that makes them able to outcompete the ancestral strain. If we had unlimited funds, we would expand the environments that we are evolving the bacteria in. It would be great not to have to keep applying for money to keep this project limping along!

Please welcome Siouxsie to RealScientists. Let there be light!


James is a recovering scientist and escaped postdoc who works in research management at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He's now retired from active @RealScientists duty, after serving from the project's beginnings in 2013 through to mid 2015. When not managing research, surviving #PlanetParenthood or pretending not to be an expat Australian in the Deep South of NZ, he tweets @theotherdrsmith.

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