Dr Michael Norman

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
University of East Anglia, 2018
Tell us a bit about yourself – what was your PhD about and where did you study?

I did my undergraduate at the University of East Anglia in the fine city of Norwich and then stayed to do a PhD straight after, graduating in 2018. My PhD was investigating how certain bacteria, found living in soil and in lake sediments, can “breath” on solid minerals/metals in the environment. In this process the bacteria are passing electrons out of their cells to essentially make a biological circuit with the electrons (used to give the bacteria energy) being conducted through the membrane surrounding the bacteria and out to the minerals themselves. This is their equivalent of humans using oxygen to pass electrons to after they’ve made us our cellular energy. The cool thing about the process is that you can swap the natural mineral for an electrode and the bacteria use it the same to pass electrons to as the respire. This then gives you a flow of electrons that you can put into a circuit and the end result is basically an electrical current you can use for anything you want. It’s essentially green energy as long as you feed the bacteria!

In my spare time I do lots of public engagement and science communication. I also love watching horror movies and playing video games.

What do you do now? What did you decide to do next after gaining your PhD?

I now work in science communication. After my PhD I worked as the Science Engagement and Outreach Officer at the Wellcome Genome Campus and am currently the Public Engagement Officer at the Babraham Institute. I develop and implement community level engagement events to provide opportunities for researchers to share their work and get public input into their research. I also support researchers develop their own public engagement programmes in their work.

I’ve basically turned my hobby into a job which is one of the nicest feelings! It’s also really important to me as I’m really passionate about opening up science and making sure everyone has the chance to engage. I grew up in a rural area and didn’t have the same opportunities others get. So for me being able to direct engagement programmes towards underserved audiences helps make my work feel really worthwhile.

Has having a PhD helped in developing your career? If yes, what has been the biggest impact? If no, why do you think that is?
Yes in so many ways! One of the biggest for me was just giving me some confidence. I still get impostor syndrome all the time but being able to look back and recognise that I did a PhD helps me to keep some perspective on how I’m feeling. I never thought I would go to uni when I was young, so knowing that I could do something that seemed so daunting helps me to take on new challenges.

What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer prospective students considering a PhD?
I would definitely recommend trying lots of things out whilst you’re doing a PhD. Don’t feel like you are stuck on the academic career path because you are doing a PhD. Talk to your supervisor and find ways to make use of the relatively flexible nature of a PhD to get involved in things that interest you whilst not disrupting your PhD work.

And what one thing would you suggest that new PhD graduates should do next?
Really think about what you want your life to be like over the next few years. Both in terms of work but also personal life. Doing that really helped me decide what my next steps were going to be. It’s a really great time to try to do something you really enjoy.

Lastly, what’s your favourite memory from your time as a PhD student?
Definitely meeting everyone I worked with. Hearing about all the amazing projects people were doing was fantastic and so many of them have become friends for life!

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