The Macro Life of a Microbiologist – Thanks and Farewell Mel Thomson

If the only twitter account you followed was @RealScientists you would not have been bored or short of reading material this week. Our curator Mel Thomson fed us a veritable flurry of very fascinating tweets on all aspects of her science and her life.

Science is great. I enjoy gin. I’m on a plane.

Mel spent a lot of the week covering the challenges of balancing academic life (teaching, administrative responsibilities, research, student supervision) along with family and her substantial science communication and outreach activities.

There was also a significant discussion of the challenges that women face in academia and the sciences, with many twitter users weighing in and adding their own experiences to the conversation. Mel also handled some decidedly dreadful interactions from the darker corners of twitter with aplomb.

A particular highlight of the week was the array of wonderful tights and leggings Mel couples with #labsafe footwear. This prompted a flurry of replies of examples of #labsafe shoes from around the world. Popular choices include Doc Martens, Converse Chucks and Campers.


The many shoes and tights of Mel and friends.

Friday evening saw Mel treating us to a live-tweeting of the recording of the podcast Science on Top (friends of RealScientists, check them out!), and the raucus sciencey drinking networking session that followed.

We thank Mel for her non-stop action on RealScientists this week, with a prodigous volume of gin and science powered tweets. She truly, as one RS follower remarked, has a “passion for science and life”.

To catch anything you missed from Mel, we have a storify in many many many parts, and also check out her current crowdfunding campaign aimed at combatting infections in hip implant patients, Hips4Hipsters – only a few weeks left for Mel to reach her funding goal.

Next up our first non-human curator, The Museum of Human Disease!

Microbes red in tooth and claw: welcome Dr Mel Thomson to RealScientists

Our curator for this coming week is Dr Mel Thomson of the Molecular Medicine Research Facility at Deakin University School of Medicine, Geelong (about 100km south-west of Melbourne, Australia). Mel is a microbiologist, researching bacterial pathogenesis – how bacteria cause disease – with a particular focus on Helicobacter, the bacteria which cause stomach ulcers. She’s also very active in science communication, advocacy, crowdfunding and social media – check out her blog at and follow her on Twitter at @Dr_Mel_Thomson (which she’d appreciate, as she’s hit Twitter’s arbitrary ‘2000 following’ limit and needs only a hundred or so more followers to get around it!)

Here’s Mel’s story, in her own words:

image_2I was interested in science from a very young age and would constantly dismember my dolls to see how they worked…which drove my family nuts (and beheaded many dolls). I had a brilliant teacher in Grade 5 who was all about maths and science and had us conducting experiments to answer posed questions like ‘Does salt lower the freezing temperature of water?’ (My very first official experiment at age 11. The answer is yes!)

I grew up on a farm, so had many opportunities to observe ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ first hand and am still using some of those empirical observations to inform my work today (like using medical maggots to heal wounds).

As the genetic revolution was starting around the time I was in high school, I decided I wanted to become an genetic engineer. I also had a passion for plants and then decided I would be the person to invent the Blue Rose. This was a much cherished ambition until I reached botany classes in my undergraduate degree at the University of Melbourne. Boredom drove me from an interest in plant based genetics and into the Microbiology field (the subject I had taken to fill in my timetable between genetics and biochemistry)

My passion was then ignited for the ‘us versus them’ narrative of clinical microbiology and I when on to complete my Honours degree on the host-pathogen interactions between Rotavirus and mammalian cells. But my passion for a certain London Bobby also grew during my first degree and I married and emigrated to the UK in the same week of my degree ceremony.

I then worked as a research assistant at Great Ormond St Hospital in London, in the Immunobiology department at the Institute of Child Health. I was employed for my tissue culture skills to work on a project that was investigating a mouse model of oral tolerance to peanut antigens…in the hope of developing a treatment for life threatening peanut allergy.


It was an interesting time to work at GOSH as they first cured a child of SCID using gene therapy whilst I was there (before the side effect of cancer was subsequently discovered) and was also during the time of the MMR debate. But living in London was too expensive for me to have a garden (and a dog!) so we decided to move to Yorkshire to enable us to have the rural idyll and a house that wasn’t attached to any others in the vicinity.

I got a job, again as a research assistant, at the Cancer Research UK department at St James’s Hospital in Leeds, again, based on my tissue culture skills. I worked on the role of CD40 and apoptosis in a bladder cancer model, using primary (non immortal) cells. But during this time, I became frustrated with the general perception that as I was ‘just an RA’ And while I was a ‘good pair of hands’ in the lab, I seemingly no active intellectual capacity attached about the neck.

I decided at this point to continue my scientific training and applied for PhDs. I was constantly knocked back for these positions, owing to the fact that UK educational institutions failed to understand the concept of the Australian Honours system and had a bias against more mature candidates (less malleable…!)

I then applied for a Masters of Research in Biomolecular Structure and Function at the University of York, to improve my chances of then getting a PhD scholarship and give myself a UK qualification to override my Australian degree. I was one of only two students to receive a distinction in this intensive one year course and then started door knocking with this qualification in hand for PhDs. Ironically, the same institutions that had refused my applications the year before all offered me scholarships but I decided to stay in the lab at the Biology department at York where I had done a Masters project. I got on well with the lab head (Dr James Moir) and after already spending 5 years post under grad in research labs as an RA, I knew that the relationship with your supervisor is the most important thing for ensuring success of your PhD project.

So began my 3 year PhD, funded by the BBSRC, working on the enzymes in the denitrification pathways of Neisseria meningitidis. It was a fruitful time (5 papers from my PhD in the end) but as my fertility clock was counting down, I decided to plan to have a baby during my ‘write up’ year. So, I finished my 3 years of lab work, heavily pregnant and gave birth to my son in Dec 2007.

After a few months at home with him, I started to get itchy feet and wanted to get back into the lab. I needed part time work with flexible working hours to care for my son (as well as work on my PhD thesis…the other baby!) so I took a job doing mmelanie-thomsonicrobiology QC in a local goat milk diary. That was an interesting 6 months but enabled me to get ‘back to work’ after a hiatus for child rearing… without the intellectual challenge of research science (for which I am eternally grateful!)

I managed to finish my thesis write up (no procrastinating as I was paying someone by the hour to mind my baby) and hand in almost on time for my deadline. I then did another short term project for my internal thesis examiner at the Hull York Medical School before securing a post doc position back at Jimmy’s Hospital in Leeds, at the shiny new Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine. It was to work for a member of the ‘Helicobacter Royalty’ (Professor Jean Crabtree), the woman who had discovered one of the major virulence factors of H. pylori earlier in her career. It was to work on a huge EU funded project being run across Europe and South America on host-pathogen interactions of a gastric microbe, so my research life had come full circle to gastrointestinal pathogens.

During this time, I tried to have a second baby…the first attempt ending in a late miscarriage. And while I was attempting to get pregnant for a third time (as sand in my fertility clock was rapidly disappearing) I decided to apply for a lecturing position at the Deakin Medical School in Geelong, so that I could bring my young family back to enjoy the Australian lifestyle. I was offered the position on the Thursday….and found I was pregnant on the Sunday. I still had 3 months notice period to work at Leeds before I could return to Australia to take up my new position and I arrived at Deakin 4 months pregnant.

I somehow managed to set up the rudiments of a research program in the 5 months before my daughter was born in Oct 2011 but owing to the archaic maternity leave system in Australia (based on years of service as opposed to the clinical needs of the mother and baby) I returned full time to work as the family bread winner 6 weeks after the birth. And didn’t get to take a day off for the subsequent 9 months as I had been compelled to take recreation leave in advance to get even as long as 6 weeks off post partum on full pay. (As to keep a roof over my family’s head)

The following year, I had two fabulous Honours students in the lab, one of who is still with me as my first PhD student (and she is fabulous!) I have slowly grown my research program to encompass local clinical microbiology concerns of my clinical collaborators like the Bairnsdale Ulcer and Implant infections.

My nascent science style is collaborative and driven by clinical need. As I work on some infections that are transmitted in an unknown way from the environment to human and animals, I embrace the ‘One Health’ multidisciplinary approach and also live by the ‘bench to bedside’ mantra. It makes my track record look completely random and hence I have also had to embrace non traditional funding models to support my research, like crowd funding. (See @mightymaggots and @hips4hipsters)

I like to communicate my science to anyone who will listen and can be found alternatively bending a politician’s ear about Emerging infectious disease threats or teaching preps how to form a hypothesis to test by experimentation using live maggots in any given week…and I am excited by the opportunity to take the reins of the @RealScientists account as it amplifies my signal and gives me more metaphorical ears to bend!


Please welcome Mel to RealScientists!