SfAM Student Placement Scholarship: Igniting Interest, Increasing Confidence

Kirsty had no idea how transformative an internship could be, until she returned to the lab to brush up on her environmental microbiology skills.

I’ve been fascinated by science since I was a young child. Like many, I was entranced by the idea of going to space, awed at the strangeness and vastness of the universe beyond our world’s borders. This led to an interest in physics. For me, back then, the big question was always, are we truly alone?

As time went on, an interest in biology blossomed, nourished by television documentaries about the complexity of life and the many forms it can take.

Biological heart

At university I was able to explore all three disciplines within science, biology, chemistry, and physics. My heart, however, lay in biology, and my desire to protect the environment became a passion.

I was approached by the Head of my school about doing outreach with the Astrobiology Society of Britain. I hoped to awaken fascination in the children I was to meet, so that some of them too might wish to pursue a career in science.

With these two interests in mind and SfAM's Student Placement Scholarship Grant, I approached a researcher who worked with environmental bacteria that perform biogeochemical gas cycling, with the aim of utilising them in cleaning up harmful green house and climate-active gases from the environment. I was seeking a long period of involvement in this field, and the internship seemed a good place to start.

The Internship

I can honestly say I was very nervous at the beginning, as I hadn’t worked in a laboratory environment for two years. While some of the work was familiar, some techniques were completely novel to me!

I was tasked with utilising cultivation-independent methods of isolating environmental bacteria from samples, and utilising isolates (previously isolated by cultivation-dependent methods) in performing physiological studies on growth.

I performed physiological studies on samples of bacteria from two sites, interpreting their growth rates on both propane and propane and ethane together.


These bacteria hail from Ellicott Creek and Pipe Creek in the USA, and are what we call propanotrophs, utilising non-methanogenic n-alkanes as their carbon-source. My supervisor, Muhammad Farhan Ul Haque, had previously performed research that investigated various locations.

He'd chosen these particular sites in order to continue the search for facultative methanotrophs, and other n-alkane utilising microbes. Along with facultative Methylocella silvestris, five propanotrophs of interest were isolated using cultivation-dependent isolation (growing on ethane and, propane).

I was introduced to the technique of growing isolates on minimal media, with gaseous substrates, and measuring growth by spectrophotometry as well as by measuring uptake of the n-alkane by gas chromatography, a completely new technique to me at the time.

Inspirational growth

By the end of the eight weeks I’d managed to get all five isolates to grow on propane and, ethane and propane together. I’d also become very well-acquainted with the gas chromatograph!

I also grew these five isolates on liquid sugars and organic acids, the viability of this being useful to know if these isolates were to be utilised in biotechnology.

I also performed cultivation-independent methods of isolation on samples from Lake Esieh in Northern Alaska, a lake of much interest in relation to the biogeochemical cycling of climate-active and greenhouse gases.

Feeling the heat

As the Earth warms up, more methane is released from permafrost stores, resulting in lakes like this one, which is a particular “hotspot” for methane emissions. This makes it both a serious cause for concern and a focus for further research.

I performed DNA extraction from soil samples, and analysed these by PCR targeting genes related to propanotrophy (propane monooxygenase) and methylocella specific methanotrophy (soluble Methane Monooxygenase).

All samples (W1-1, W2 and W1-3) contained propanotrophs, and only W2 contained Methylocella. Right at the very end of my time on the internship I managed to sequence some of the bacteria present by colony PCR, but did not have enough time to look further into this unfortunately!

I overcame my fears and gave a talk on my findings. I felt that the work of preparing this helped me to really understand what I had managed to achieve over my time on the internship.

Ready for more

The laboratory was a very welcoming place, everyone on the team was willing to help. The liquid substrates on which to grow my isolates were provided by a fellow PhD student, and advice on how to perform these growth experiments, and support was willingly provided by various members of the laboratory.

There was a great sense of camaraderie, and I felt like I was a part of the team! I was even invited on a trip to a Molecular Microbe Ecology Group meeting in Swansea, which was a fantastic experience and enabled me to see other young researchers’ work and to glimpse where perhaps I could go from here.

Grab the chance

When there was an opportunity to stay on in the laboratory, I jumped at the chance. I'm now about to undertake my MSc by Research, working with a different researcher, but as a part of the same laboratory. I can’t wait to get started!

Without the internship I would’ve missed a great opportunity and would really encourage anyone doing a degree related to microbiology, and who is interested in undertaking research, to take the opportunity to do one. Without the internship, I honestly don’t think I’d be prepared for what research entails, it’s hard work, but it’s rewarding!

Dispelling Doubts

I experienced anxiety on and off for years prior to starting university without being able to give it a name, and it was only during my time as an undergraduate that I learned the name of my problem and began to acquire the tools to cope with it.

It has turned out that undertaking this internship has been one of the best decisions I have made, increasing my confidence, igniting my interest in environmental microbiology, dispelling anxiety, and confirming my wish to embark on a research career.

Now about to embark on my MSc by Research, I am excited to continue working in this most engaging and fascinating area of research, and am continuing the project on in a PhD that I have recently been accepted for.


Kirsty Nice (BIO - Postgraduate Researcher)

SfAM's Student Placement Scholarship Grant