Dr Frances Colles: interdisciplinary research

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Dr Frances Colles – Senior Researcher, Departmental Lecturer in Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, Retained Lecturer Magdalen College

Both my parents were vets, and I was determined to follow in their footsteps from a very young age. However, it was not to be, thanks to a combination of my struggles with maths (though I have since acquired new skills through home schooling) and a badly timed lack of confidence.

Instead, I have been able to follow my passion through microbiology, first working in veterinary and NHS diagnostic labs, and then joining Martin Maiden’s research group in the Zoology Department, to study the epidemiology of Campylobacter.

Not heard of Campylobacter? You wouldn’t be alone. If you have, it may well be because you’ve experienced the deeply unpleasant consequences of infection. In fact, it is the most common bacterial cause of gastroenteritis worldwide, causing on average 1 infection every 2 minutes in the UK.

My research focuses on bacterial genomics enabled by the PubMLST database, and how chickens, the most common source of human disease in high-income countries, become infected in the first place. Campylobacter is an example of a microorganism that can infect both humans and animals, but there are also broader aspects to consider within a ‘one health’ umbrella, such as animal management regimes, use of antibiotics and impact on the environment.

My research is controversial, challenging a long-established paradigm; multi-disciplinary, bringing in aspects of animal welfare and behaviour; and collaborative, working with industry. Whilst immensely rewarding, there are difficulties in applying for grants and publishing work that doesn’t always fit within conventional categories.

I have had to maintain a flexible approach to my career, but I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with very supportive colleagues when times are difficult, and also benefited from the University John Fell fund for help with the impacts of maternity leave and COVID-19.

For me, the last lockdown has been the hardest, juggling research and teaching commitments with home-schooling 2 young children. Much as I have loved learning about Romans, been seriously impressed that a 5-year-old can produce a ‘Monet painting’, and laughed about Zoom ‘incidents’ (afterwards), I am grateful for the return to some normality for the sake of everyone’s mental health.

I count myself lucky that during the first lockdown I was able to do something positive by helping with NHS COVID-19 testing, alongside old friends and new. Another positive for me is the increased opportunity to attend virtual seminars and meet with international colleagues – this simply wouldn’t have been possible for me before.

Most of all I hope that now, more than ever, we will seriously consider our relationship with animals and the environment in order to avoid future pandemics. We must also address the alarming rate of increasing antimicrobial resistance if we are to avoid a return to 18th-century infections and mortality levels.

Even if your closest encounter with animals is eating them as burgers, their health and welfare directly affects you and the world around you.