Research at Birmingham: The Institute of Microbiology & Infection

Originally published in our winter 2013 issue

Ian Henderson, is a Professor of Microbial Biology in the College of Medical & Dental Sciences here at the University of Birmingham,  and is also the Director of the newly established Institute of Microbiology & Infection, the IMI. Opened in December 2012, and located in the School of Biosciences, the institute is one of the biggest centres for microbial research in Europe.

SATNAV Co-Editor Emily Dixon talked to him about the Institutes inception, and where they are hoping to go from here.

Hi Ian; thanks for agreeing to chat to us today. Firstly, why do you see Microbiology as such an important discipline?

Microbiology touches virtually every aspect of life. As such, Microbiology holds the solution to many of the world’s current societal problems. For example, we will continue to see microbiology being exploited to enhance food safety and production, pharmaceutical production and to combat climate change. Also, the importance of Microbiology is reflected by the huge percentage of students at Birmingham who come into contact with some form of Microbiology teaching each year, over 10% of our student body receive some sort of formal training in aspects of Microbiology.

In your opinion, what is the main purpose of the IMI?

The institute’s mission is to lead the discipline of Microbiology, both nationally and globally, by promoting excellence in postgraduate training and research, for the ultimate benefit of society.

Were you involved in the establishment of the institute – was it a difficult process?

There were multiple years invested in the genesis of the IMI. The concept was started probably close to 10 years ago, and over the years involved many individuals. However, we really started to get traction with the idea when David Eastwood (Vice Chancellor) started at the university. He was very enthusiastic about creating something that was greater than the sum of its individual parts, which bringing the Microbiologists from campus together could deliver.

The IMI is a collaboration between 2 colleges (Biosciences and Medicine & Dentistry), were there any loopholes or issues encountered during it’s creation?

In terms of loopholes, the IMI is not a budget holding centre, we don’t hire directly or run undergraduate programmes. We are instead a research focused organisation. The IMI has an inward focus for Microbiologists on campus, as a sort of family, to connect with each other and give them an identity. It also gives them a brand for the outside world. The thing that struck home to me before the creation of the IMI, was that people knew there were great individuals here – but there was little appreciation of the fact that the biggest concentration of microbiologists in the UK, especially bacteriologists, could be found here.

When looking at Microbiology in its broadest sense, encompassing bacteriology, parasitology,mycology but also virology, we are an enormous group: in the Centre for Human Virology, just up the road, there are another 23 Principal Investigators – that makes a total of over 50 Principal Investigators in the university focused on microbial research.

What would you say is the IMI’s biggest achievement to date?

The biggest achievement is primarily getting us together, getting everybody into the one footprint. Importantly, we are also beginning to attract international recognition. This is reflected in the calibre of the people that are agreeing to come and speak here. Recently we’ve had Andrew Jermy, the microbiology editor for Nature, and Pascale Cossart, the authority on Listeria monocytogenes and a member of the National Academies of Sciences in seven different countires. Next March we will be hosting Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer. So it’s clear that we are gaining brand recognition outside of the University and on an international scale.

So where would you like the IMI to be in 10 years time?

What I really want to create is a place that people recognise as a centre for microbiology. I want to create a bespoke environment to house microbiology researchers, with the appropriate equipment to facilitate world-leading research and a community to achieve it. However, probably our greatest aspiration is a centre of gravity for Microbiology research, such that it becomes the obvious destination for people who want to study and research this discipline to come to. This way we will attract the best of the best students, and the institute will be a place that our peers will aspire to join.

How does the IMI benefit students at the university?

I think one of the greatest benefits for students is to be able to see the breadth and depth of microbiology in practice. If you look at what we do within the IMI, it spans fundamental studies to applied microbiology. This goes right from genomics/gene transcription, protein localisation & secretion, how these proteins interact to put the cell together, to how pathogens interact with the environment and their host, and how the host responds to the pathogen and pathogen components. We are really strong at looking at these attributes, and then exploiting these for societal benefit, e.g. for antimicrobials & vaccinations.

We are extremely passionate about supporting our students and helping them to be the best that they can be. After they leave, we want them to emissaries for Birmingham, the intellectual outposts of the IMI in their chosen career paths. I believe we have already demonstrated our commitment to our students with a successful new Masters course and the success our students and postdoctoral fellows have had in attracting independent research fellowships.

Is there ever any difficulty balancing conflicts of interest between the different research labs within the institute?

There isn’t any real balancing in terms of my role, I’m not sitting here with a large pot of money that people are vying for. What I do have to do is strive to make the working life of people in the institute better and create a sense of collective identity that everyone shares in. The important thing to note is that the IMI is an extremely collegiate environment and individuals generally support each other with enthusiasm (Author addition instead money comes from various research councils and organisations that each lab or researcher applies for externally.)

How did your career lead you to becoming the director of the IMI?

I was always extremely passionate about getting the Microbiology community on campus working together and physically together. I was one of those who pitched the concept of the institute back in around 2003/4. David Eastwood was quite enthusiastic about the idea, so when the institute was created it was perhaps natural that I would apply for the role as Director.

To date, though admittedly I am somewhat biased, I think it has been a great success!

And finally, do you have any tips for students wishing to pursue a career in research?

Work smart you don’t always have to work hard, but you should work smart. Choose a supervisor that is clearly research active. If you want a career in science you must publish:

Publish or perish! as the adage goes. Read and when you’ve finished reading, read some more. Lastly, make sure to network. I think this is a skill that is somewhat underestimated. Networking is extremely important because not only does it expose you and your research to other people, but it also exposes you to other ideas. This one of the most important facets of the IMI: we have created a cradle for intellectual cross fertilisation. By bringing together a body of people to facilitate the exchange of ideas and enhance creativity.

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