My journey into STEM: from primates, to parasites, pathogens

For National Science Week our ASM communications ambassadors shared their journeys on social media using the hashtag #stemgotmehere

Here, Rhys White shares his journey into STEM and microbiology.

During my Bachelor of Science at Cardiff University, I undertook a placement year with the Danau Girang Field Centre based in Sabah, Borneo. I witnessed deforestation first-hand and got involved with rehabilitation efforts by planting trees. We tracked primates using Ultra High Frequency downloads and radio telemetry, supervised primate surveys, field courses, and night walks. I developed my science communication skills at this time through co-writing newsletters.

During this placement, I designed and implemented a scientific project focusing on nocturnal mosquito diversity in varying secondary forest ecotypes. Sadly, this placement was cut short due to an accident at midday during a visit to Kota Kinabalu - resulting with me breaking my leg.

On returning to the UK, I volunteered doing wet lab work for the BARC project at Cardiff Research into Infection and Parasites in Ecological Systems, based within the Organisms and Environment Division, School of Biosciences, Cardiff. BARC is a citizen science project “Bag and Remove in Cymru” with the aim of assessing the prevalence of UK soil parasites, raise awareness of the negative effects of dog fouling, and its impact on pet health.

In the final year of my BSc, I met Tom Connor (@tomrconnor) and Peter Kille (@PKille) where I discovered my passion for bioinformatics. Tom supervised me for my undergrad thesis where I investigated uropathogenic E. coli circulating hospitals across Wales. This was my first introduction to Illumina short-read sequencing.

Now, I don't like discussing politics, but I originally had a place on a Master of Research programme at Cardiff University. But, as soon as Brexit (remain!) happened, support for Welsh students seemed to vanish and I couldn’t afford the annual £8k+ tuition. I never enrolled and decided to look overseas.


Instead, I started as an intelligence analyst for Public Health Wales - the national public health agency in Wales where I met the Chief Executive Tracy Cooper (@tcooper321). I was part of a team leading a project around the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections across Wales.

I later found out that my application to undertake a PhD scholarship at the Beatson Lab at the University of Queensland was successful. I packed a bag and got on a flight to AUSTRALIA - how crazy! So #ThisIsMyLab - what a great bunch! The lab aims to better understand the molecular mechanisms of infectious disease and identify therapeutic and diagnostic targets by exploiting “Next-gen” genomic data.

I'm now in my final year of a PhD life and love it! I've presented a combination of posters and oral talks at 7 national conferences and an international conference in the UK. That, and I've met some incredible friends and colleagues along the way.

The international conference (UK) included a visit to colleagues at Edinburgh University and the Roslin Institute. I'm also passionate about my ASM communicator role, where I had the privilege to meet and talk with Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Ruff. On reflection, I’ve had so many fantastic experiences, some of which most people may not ever experience. All this is because #STEMgotmehere!

Rebecca LeBardComment