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From Forth Valley, to the ends of the Earth

How a “bold” decision to apply for college started a journey that’s led to a pioneering trip to Antarctica for Dr Kirsty Robb, antibiotic resistance researcher at the University of Strathclyde.
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At the age of 23, I made a bold decision to apply to Forth Valley College (FVC) for an NQ in Applied Biological Sciences.

It was a bit of a whim as I wasn’t really sure where my career path was going. I enjoyed science and this gave me the chance to improve on my Higher grades.

To my surprise, I really enjoyed doing my Higher grades all over again. I loved chemistry and biology and ended up with A grades – it’s amazing how you can apply yourself if you enjoy something. From this point, I decided that a career in science was what I wanted and went on to study for an HND in Applied Biological Sciences.

With the encouragement of the lecturers at FVC, Moira Wilson in particular, I then chose to apply to the University of Strathclyde to study a BSc (Hons) in Biochemistry and Immunology.

Dr Kirsty RobbI was a direct entry in to 3rd year of a degree where the peer groups had already formed and the jump in the workload was incredible.

It was hard. Did I think about quitting? Yes. However, I was determined and I enjoyed learning, so I persevered for the next two years and earned a respectable Honours degree. I decided however that this was not going to be the end of my learning journey.

I chose to apply for PhDs when I finished my degree in 2011. The experience I had during my final year project encouraged me to apply for two projects at the University within the labs where I did my project. I was offered a PhD looking at regulatory proteins in bacteria in Dr Paul Hoskisson’s lab. In 2016, I emerged from my PhD and took up a post-doctoral role in the same laboratory. I have been working at the University of Strathclyde ever since.

My passion lies in inspiring people that science is for everyone and that science is all around them. As well as my research, I have started to do public engagement encouraging people to get involved in the search for new antibiotics in the fight against superbugs – bacteria that have evolved to become ‘resistant’ to antibiotics we rely on, like penicillin.

This means they no longer work, making even the most common infections difficult to treat and routine surgery such as Caesarean sections or hip replacements almost impossible. It’s hard to imagine that before antibiotics, even a simple scratch could be fatal. That’s why the ‘arms race’ of antibiotic resistance is such an important fight.

My current research is in collaboration with GSK investigating how to improve the yield of clavulanic acid (CA), an important molecule that allows the antibacterial activity of penicillin-type antibiotics against otherwise resistant bacteria.

Career wise, I’ve come a long way from where I started as a slightly unsure 23-year-old at FVC and have a much clearer picture of where I’m going. In early 2017 I became aware of a leadership program called Homeward Bound. Homeward Bound is a groundbreaking leadership, strategic and science initiative for women, set against the backdrop of Antarctica. The initiative, turned global movement aims to heighten the influence and impact of women with a science background in order to influence policy and decision-making as it shapes our planet. The program aims to train 1000 women over 10 years for sustainable future of our planet.

I jumped at the opportunity to apply for this program and submitted the application. I never thought my application would get anywhere but in October 2017, I got an email telling me my application was successful and there it was, I was now part of the global Homeward Bound network. I’m part of the third cohort that includes 80 women from a wide range of STEM backgrounds and career stages.

Throughout the course of the year we have frequent teleconferences with each other and work on the different components that make up the program including leadership development, scientific collaboration, strategic capability, visibility and science communication. The visibility and science communication holds great appeal to me as it means I can hone those skills and reach audiences who perhaps don’t engage with science or don’t get the opportunity to engage with science.

I set sail for Antarctica on board the MV Ushuaia in December 2018 and I can’t wait to meet the participants in person when we get to Argentina on the 28th of December. Whilst we are on board the MV Ushuaia in Antarctica, we will still be focussed on leadership development, personal development, collaboration and scientific discussion. We will also have the opportunity to land on shore most days and visit research stations along the way.

This is undoubtedly the most exciting opportunity I have had in my science career so far; it is also one that will most likely affect every decision I make going forward in my career from now on as I strive to be a better scientist and communicator. I will be sharing videos and blogs about the trip to Antarctica early next year. If you would like to follow these, you can find me on GoFundMe and Twitter @theproteinqueen.

Dr Kirsty Robb, Research Associate, Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences - 6 Sep 2018