Dr Geertje van Keulen (GVK) is an Associate Professor in Biochemistry at Swansea University, Institute of Life Sciences. Her specialty is microbial biochemistry, having a particular interest in antibiotics biosynthesis and modulation of wettability of natural, biological, and man-made materials using protein coatings. Geertje is also one of the Swansea Soapbox Science (SS) organizers. Come & meet Geertje this Saturday, 11-3, on the Swansea bay!
SS: Geertje, we are delighted to work with you this year on Soapbox Science Swansea! It would be great to know a little bit more about you: for a start, maybe you could tell us how you got to your current position?
GVK: The short answer is: One year ago I got promoted from lecturer B to Associate Professor on the Teaching & Research academic profile. The long version is: I started off as a chemistry student majoring in eukaryotic biochemistry. I enjoyed my research project as a student so much that I wanted to continue in the field of regulation of gene expression. I applied for and was offered a typical Dutch-style PhD studentship as a research trainee. In this job I gained my PhD in microbial physiology by studying microbial CO2 fixation by linking signals from changes in physiological status to changes in gene expression.
My first postdoc job was in my first interdisciplinary ‘academics for business’ type project with multiple partners in which sustainable marine antifouling coatings were developed. In this work I observed some peculiar behaviour of what is now my ‘pet microbe’ Streptomyces. This was so exciting, I used it to apply for my first research funding, leading to being awarded two overseas fellowships in molecular microbiology at the prestigous John Innes Centre in Norwich. Upon finishing my fellowships, Swansea offered me a permanent position as lecturer. There I further developed my interests in environmental microbiology, leading to exciting research projects in antibiotics production in soils and to the study of why soils don’t wet after a dry spell, which can all be drawn back to my pet microbe! This latter work has also resulted in my newest of collaborations on protein coatings with Tata Steel.
In conclusion, I have gone through a ‘traditional’ career progression in research (and teaching) and am currently Associate Professor. While I am regarded as a microbial biochemist, I truly enjoy ‘shopping around’ in interdisciplinary research projects with collaborators originating from engineering and steel manufacturing to geography and soil science.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
GVK: I was first inspired in science by my chemistry teacher in secondary school. I enjoyed chemistry and the molecular aspects of biology from the first day I was taught these disciplines, and luckily had a mind for it too! My primary driver to continue in science in higher education and research has always been enjoyment and sheer interest, even though I didn’t excel in some of the subject areas. Only later it turned into a career with scientific employment by searching and being offered opportunities.
SS: So what is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
GVK: Discovering how microbes have evolved as chemists, pharmacists and the most amazing materials and environmental engineers.
SS: And what attracted you to Soapbox Science?
GVK: I strongly believe that getting more girls and women in science and engineering at all levels is critical for achieving a high community success rate in happiness, wellbeing and, in general, equality of opportunities in education and in work. The general public response to education and science should not be nerdy or boring but full of exciting hot stuff, truly transforming and taking you to exciting places too. By talking about my science I hope to be able to enthuse girls, boys, and their parents, to think about a career in science and all the fun to be had in it. I also aim to talk about interdisciplinary science and crossovers with engineering opportunities to make people become aware of what they could develop into themselves by opening up thoughts and be influenced by others.
SS: Now this year you are a Soapbox Science organizer & speaker. Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
SS: And if you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
GVK: I hope that one day a ‘can do, will do’ culture will exist for all, with genuine mutual respect and opportunities open for all to develop in, in a naturally unbiased manner.
SS: And finally, what would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
GVK: Develop stamina, self belief, thick skin and confidence to be persistent, so to not be ‘defeated’ by what initially may seem to be impossible hurdles, while remaining creative and open-minded to opportunities. I also think that a good mentor as a personal guide and (re-)motivator throughout your career is important to succeed in any high-stake career, including academia.