Dr. Monika Bokori-Brown is a research fellow at the University of Exeter where she studies bacterial toxins. Here she tells us about her work, what inspires her most and why she decided to take part in Soapbox Science. You can come and hear Monika speak at Soapbox Science in Exeter on the 29th of September where you can hear about her most recent discoveries!
SS: How did you get to your current position?
MBB: The route to my current position has been rather unconventional. I studied Biology and English at degree level in Hungary, both of which worked to my advantage when I decided to move into scientific research in the UK. Having completed an MSc in Molecular Biology, I became a research scientist at Porton Down where, as part of the molecular team, I engineered botulinum neurotoxins for the treatment of chronic pain. Whilst I really enjoyed being part of this commercial-oriented, multi-disciplinary project, I quickly realized that if I wanted to progress my career in science I needed to get a PhD. This meant leaving my permanent position to become a student again! I did my PhD at Cambridge University where my research focused on the molecular and cell biology aspects of a mitochondrial disease that affects the nervous system. After this I took a postdoctoral research scientist position at a start-up biotech company in Cambridge before retracing my steps into the field of bacterial toxins 11 years ago when I became a Research Fellow at the University of Exeter. Over the past five years my research has developed at the interface between biology and physics, using novel approaches to understand the biophysical and molecular aspects of the interaction of bacterial toxins with the cell membrane. Moving into interdisciplinary research has given me a unique set of skills and has allowed me develop my own area of research. I hope to build upon my established knowledge and expertise over the next few years to become a leading independent researcher.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
MBB: Ever since I finished my undergraduate studies in Hungary I have been dreaming of becoming a research scientist. During my MSc studies I had an extremely supportive Professor as a mentor who inspired and motivated me to get a career in science. I strongly believe that encouragement and professional mentorship is critical to succeed in the highly competitive world of academic research. It is also very important to have a plan on what direction you want your research to take in the early stages of your career.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
MBB: Bacterial toxins tend to have a bad reputation and I want to show people that they also have a good side, helping us to develop novel therapeutics to combat serious animal and human diseases. I particularly enjoy the interdisciplinary aspect of my research, collaborating with many talented researchers whose skills complement mine. In the longer term, I hope that my interdisciplinary research will lead to new approaches to controlling bacterial infections caused by toxins. Development of novel therapeutics to fight bacterial infections is critical and timely, given the increasing incidence of antimicrobial resistant bacterial infections worldwide.
Bacterial pore forming toxins are typically produced by bacteria as one protein, called a monomer. In this form they are relatively inactive. However, when the monomers reach their target in the cell membrane they quickly become active and self-assemble into mushroom-shaped pores that puncture holes in the cell membrane. Through the mushroom’s stalk, called the pore, small molecules leak out of the cell, causing cells to die.
One way to prevent bacterial infections caused by toxins is to produce toxoid vaccines, a type of vaccine that contains toxins made harmless by inactivation. Amino acid substitution is a good way to inactivate toxins. The image shows a bacterial toxin with amino acids important for its function marked in blue.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
MBB: Scientists often stay in their own ‘bubble’ of research groups with few opportunities to interact with the public. Becoming a Soapbox Science speaker will give me a rare opportunity to engage with the public in an unconventional way to inspire the next generation of scientists. It will also allow me to increase the visibility of my research.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
MBB: I have now reached a critical stage in my career where if I wanted to advance my career within academia I would have to move organisations to get onto the academic career ladder and give up the practical aspect of research I love so much. This is because the current academic structure offers very limited career progression and job security for postdoctoral researchers and does not encourage postdoctoral researchers to apply for academic positions within the same organisation, which would allow for career progression. The limited career progression and job security for postdoctoral researchers mean that they often decide to leave science, which is extremely wasteful given the cost of training PhD students. I strongly believe that more credit needs to be given to postdoctoral researchers who make significant contribution to the success of their academic supervisors in terms of securing funding. If I could change one thing about the scientific culture right now it would be the career structure for postdoctoral researchers within academia.