A critical search for new antibiotics

 

Within the Molecular Microbiology department, and under the supervision of team-leader Barrie, a group of scientists at the John Innes Centre aim to discover and understand the pathways by which bacteria and fungus produce antibiotics.
As many life-threatening diseases are evolving faster than the drugs used to treat them, it is critically important to develop new antibiotics to continue to treat and prevent future infections.
Some of the team’s present work involves investigating the discovery of a new antibiotic produced by the bacteria found on a species of African ant, that could be used in the treatment of “superbugs” such as MRSA.

I had two weeks to finish my fourth drawing, and create two new ones (including this one) before they were photographed, glued down and framed for their first showing at the John Innes Centre (JIC) 50th celebrations OPEN DAY on September 16th. This was the last drawing of six and time was extremely tight. I went to ground for two solid weeks, only coming out of my studio to scrabble for food, drink and sleep. Luckily I already had a fairly good idea for this last image, having used this same subject to make a sample drawing as part of the initial project proposal.

Sample drawing for LIVES IN SCIENCE

‘Searching for new antibiotics’, Sample drawing,about 5ft x 8ft, double the size of the project drawings

 

rough for searching for anti biotics

rough sketch for the main drawing

 

I had already met and photographed Morgan, she is the central figure in the sample drawing, in my race against time I still needed to meet and photograph the others.

The JIC has its own internal house internet. It’s like a whole community all of its own and keeps the scientists connected with everything science and social, for the people who work there with talks, meetings, seminars, cakes, cake events, research updates, staff, group meetings, parties, yoga and Pilates amongst others.

On the events calendar I noticed a Daniel Heine was giving a seminar about his findings into leaf cutter ants and the search for new antibiotics. As usual, I didn’t expect to understand much of the talk, and on that aspect I was right. It was good to see David Hopwood had come in for the talk (he is retired now), and comforting to see a familiar face in a sea of scientists. Although he was coming to the end of his work at JIC to start a job in industry, I was keen to include Daniel in the drawing and thought it would be a nice souvenir for him to remember his time at JIC. Daniel is the last in line in a team searching for antibiotics, researching the chemistry of leaf cutter ants. I arranged to meet him in the chemistry lab. The room looked like something out of Dr Who with its extending fume tubes hanging down from the ceiling.

It is often said that Germans don’t have a sense of humour however, Daniel was very jolly and always looking at the funny side of what he does including, pretending to be an evil doctor death as he made audible crunching sounds  pulverizing the frozen, dead ants in a test tube. ‘We have to do this in order to break the hard shell on the ant to get the contents of their stomach which is where the antibiotics are produced’ . These ants are bred at the UEA by Matt Hutchings who works in collaboration with the team. The ants are weighed individually and recorded, each ant with its own identifying number. ‘ Aw I feel so bad, they are so cute’ Daniel states, ‘I don’t know what people will think that we use dead ants to research with’. He also told me that he was glad I was there, it helped him focus on the boring bit of this particular job.

after long study and a long PhD and some years of post doc experience it is necessary to do simple and stupid work’

The funny thing is you meet people of all nationalities here; being  your stereotypes then you realise they are not all the same.. We consider leaf cutter ants as something very special for their lifestyle. But in Panama in agriculture they cause huge loss of crops..They have impressive ants nests at UEA, they grow quickly if they have enough leaves.’

Barry's meeting

Barrie’s group meeting for Daniel’s last day

 

With the others who appear in the drawing, Barry, Eleni and Siobhan, the camera had to do its speedy work, there was no time! Eleni is Greek. She is fairly petit and full of energy and enthusiasm, she said she does everything really fast. She is also very enthusiastic about science communication and art too. I would call her ‘whizzy’, (such a shame I didn’t have more time to sketch and talk to her!) As with Eleni, it was a rush job with Siobhan. She had been away looking after her two young children during the summer holiday, and managed to get a friend to babysit so she could come in and do a little work in the lab, for me to have a little time with her. Siobhan came to work after a career break to raise her young children, she began work at the JIC as a Daphne Jackson Trust postdoctoral fellow. This allowed her to work part-time, while re-training in a new field. She is currently working as a part-time postdoctoral researcher. She has benefited from theJIC’s many family friendly work policies and is passionate about making it easier for women and men to continue their research careers after having children.

studio TWO SAB

Studio, start of the drawing

Studio THREE SAB

introducing colour

Studio FOUR SAB

letter spacing

Searching for new antibiotics copy

just about finished

The Team

Barrie

Project Leader – Molecular Microbiology

Barry's meeting

Barrie’s group meeting.

Born in Sheffield, Barrie spent much of his childhood fishing, a hobby he continues to enjoy. Barrie and his three siblings were raised by their father a painter and decorator, and their mother. Although he enjoyed science at school he didn’t find his passion for it until attending University, were he met an inspiring tutor, with whom he conducted his PhD.

Having spent 16 years in scientific industry, running the research and development of small companies he made the decision to work at the John Innes Centre to be able to choose the direction of his own research. He has also founded his own company that is based in Cambridge, which he advises scientifically from his position on the board.

Along with playing sports with his two young sons, Barrie enjoys coaching his youngest son’s football team as well as help coach at the local village cricket club. Barrie’s two brothers have followed in their father’s footsteps and become self-employed painters.

I was always interested in the natural world, and sports. I spent much of my childhood fishing, especially competitive matches and almost made the national youth squad.”

 

Morgan

Postdoctoral Scientist

Morgan was born and raised in Racine, Wisconsin, USA and later attended university in Dallas. Both of her parents were teachers and she was a bit of a “swot” at school, spending little time socialising.

With a love of doing punnet squares at high school, a summer internship at university led her away from her intended major in English literature and into the realm of science.

In her spare time, Morgan enjoys a variety of arts and crafts, baking, writing and watching period and crime drama on T.V. She also enjoys listening numerous podcasts and visiting museums.

I did a summer internship my first year at university. It was a revelation seeing what science actually was like and seeing how all the pieces came together to form a

story.”

 

Daniel

Postdoctoral Scientist

Daniel in the chemistry lab

Daniel in the chemistry lab

Born into a working-class family in eastern Germany, Daniel was the first in his family to obtain a university degree. Going to university wasn’t a popular choice at the time as most people were encouraged to belong to the working class.

As a student he was interested in various subjects including history and sports, but his love of natural sciences prevailed and drove him into his current career. Daniel states that he really loved to study models as they helped him to understand how the world and all living organisms work.

Fascinated by chemicals that are produced by living organisms, Daniel is happy to have found his position in Norwich. Having already heard of the “famous” John Innes Centre and the work of his now team leader, Barrie, he decided to take the chance to apply for an opportunity. He believes that “science is not a normal job, it’s a personal thing – you can choose the people you work with in each field”.

With a love of meeting new and interesting people, Daniel throws his backpack on and goes travelling whenever he has time for it.

“I have had the chance to move to the UK for a part of my life, to conduct my research, and make friends with wonderful people from all over the world.”

Siobhan

Research Fellow

Siobhan, the 2nd of five children, was born in Galway, Ireland. Her dad who is Indian-Malaysian, met her Irish mother during their first year at university in Galway. An encounter that was to be repeated by Siobhan herself, who also met her future husband at the same university in their first year of study.

Apart from living in Galway, a city that she dearly misses, Siobhan and her family relocated to Ottawa when she was 8. She states that in retrospect her mother must have been “mad to agree” to the move, having 5 young children to cope with in a foreign country.

Her family boasts an array of accomplished careers; from psychology to jewellery making. As Siobhan progressed through school she decided she wanted to become a fashion designer, something she finds hilarious now as her fashion sense can be described as “practical at best”.

She fell in love with biology at the age of 15, and gave no further thought to her career path but merely kept doing what she enjoyed. This lead to a degree in microbiology.

Having relocated a few times to forward her career, Siobhan, her husband and two young children are now settled in Norwich. She states she is fortunate enough to have an understanding boss who supports her part-time hours, allowing her to spend more time being a mum.

I love that science is essentially all about trying to make the world a better place – trying to learn more and improve and invent technologies.”

Eleni

Postgraduate Student

Eleni & Daniel

Eleni with Daniel

For Eleni school was a magical time. She took part in plenty of extracurricular activities but still found the time to study and get excellent grades – something her present self is now envious of.

She grew up in Piraeus, Athens, Greece and is the first scientist in her extended family as well as the first to pursue a PhD. Having so many interests at school she struggled to decide what she wanted to do as a career. She decided to take a job orientation test, the results of which were journalist, actress and scientist. With the latter being the most intriguing to her she decided to study agricultural biotechnology at university.

In addition to having the opportunity to live and work abroad, namely Nairobi, Kenya, she states that she feels privileged to work within the scientific community among such a wide array of people. In her spare time Eleni enjoys cooking and baking recipes from all over the world and travelling.

I took a job orientation test, it gave me the three fields that match my personality: journalism, arts and science. The idea of science inspired me most.”

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