SfAM Symposium – A delegate’s eye

This year’s Society for Applied Microbiology’s (SfAM) Early Career Scientist Research Symposium, hosted at the fantastic Aston Webb Great Hall at the University of Birmingham (UK), had record numbers, with 111 delegates present who were treated to some fantastic poster and oral presentations in addition to two scintillating keynote speakers tackling some important issues including antimicrobial resistance and response to flu pandemics.

The day started with an initial, attended short poster session while registration finished, then an official introduction from the SfAM chief executive, Lucy Harper, who warmly welcomed the delegates to the 7th annual research symposium and spoke about the new addition to SfAM, ‘policy corner’, concerning the impact of applied microbiology on scientific policy. Throughout the day, the delegates were invited to participate in ‘dotmocracy’, a twist on democracy, where they were encouraged to vote on several issues within microbiology and rate their importance of needing to be addressed in science policy. This was done by using three different colour ‘dots’, each colour representing a priority of 1, 2 or 3, and adding them next to each issue that they thought should be addressed, with the numbers tallied at the end of the event.

The outside of the venue, the Aston Webb Great Hall

The first session featured six oral presentations, chaired by Lucy Harper, on topics ranging from manipulation of the broiler gut microbiota, presented by Ali Alsudani (Nottingham Trent University, UK), to the development of a rapid multiplex PCR assay to detect ESBL genes, which are key for antimicrobial resistance, presented by Ruth Reid (De Montfort University, Leicester, UK). We also saw presentations on exploiting the unexplored chemical diversity of Streptomyces spp., presented by Joshua Burns (Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, UK) and my personal favourite, identification of the underlying antibacterial mechanisms of honey, presented by Maria Masoura (University of Birmingham). The speakers all spoke confidently and passionately about their chosen topic and enthusiastically answered questions from the other delegates about their pieces. Although the topic of the symposium was ‘Epidemiology and Infection Control’, it was exciting to see topics from a wide range of applied microbiology covered, showcasing the diversity of the research undertaken by each of the delegates.

The inside of this great venue

After and indeed during lunch, there was another poster session. I took the opportunity to leave my own poster for a while to have a look at some of the others. Posters 7, 11, 16, 20 and 21 caught my eye, however, the standard and range of topics covered was both fascinating and excellent. I also entered my own poster, poster 23 – ‘Optimisation of disruption of Bacillus licheniformis using pressure’, which rather pleasingly, got its fair share of attention.


This was followed up by the first keynote session, featuring Fin Twomey, the Head of Animal Public Health at DEFRA (London, UK), speaking about the challenges of antimicrobial resistance, using a case study in pigs. Personally, I found this presentation fascinating, due to my own research interests in antimicrobial resistance, and I’m sure I am not alone in learning an awful lot from this talk.

The issue of antimicrobial resistance runs deeper than just in humans; the interactions between human and animal, in particular pets, can cause ‘jumping’ of resistance genes from animal-to-human, vice versa and from human-to-human, which aids the spread of resistance. Additionally, what appears to be antimicrobial resistance, or AMR, may not always be as it seems and is not always the reason for treatment failure – failure can be due to the treatment being administered at the inappropriate time, too late for any effect, the infection may be polymicrobial so an initial antibiotic won’t be completely effective, the treatment itself may be inappropriate or an inappropriate dosage. Interestingly this appears to apply to infections within humans as well as animals.

Antimicrobial resistance can additionally spread via environmental contamination, which is not apparent until infection of an animal or human occurs via contact. The key points I took away from this were:

  • That AMR requires a ‘joined-up’ approach across infection control, infection prevention and treatment in humans, animals and the environment
  • That we need to be considerate with our use of antibiotics in order to maximize the length of time we are able to use them for
  • Twomey made clear that there was already a global action plan in place and a 5-year strategy to tackle and control AMR, adding that alternatives to antibiotics and antimicrobials, such as vaccines, should be initially considered to either treat or prevent infection by infection control professionals and clinical staff

Using the example of pigs, Twomey initially reiterated something most microbiologists are fully aware of – the need for rapid diagnostic testing – both for the cause of infection, and for the presence of resistance genes, for example mcr-1, particularly those coding for colistin resistance, as colistin is considered to be an antibiotic of ‘last resort’, and should therefore be ‘saved’ unless it is really needed.

A very interesting final note is antibiotics acting as a selection pressure, weeding out the weak bacteria and leaving only the strong hard-to-get-rid-of bacteria, but if we take out the selection pressure, the weak bacteria may return.

The second keynote session featured another topic often in the center of attention – epidemiology, transmission, vaccinology and pandemic preparedness, using influenza pandemics as an example – presented by Jonathan Van-Tam, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer. The talk was reassuring in terms of the plans and resources the UK is able to quickly put into action should a flu pandemic occur – antivirals and vaccines are advance purchased, plus other clinical countermeasures, such as personal protective equipment, will be immediately on order as soon as the outbreak is identified, there will also be a ‘National Pandemic Flu Service’ that will take pressure off hospitals and enable rapid treatment.

Van Tam also outlined the typical characteristics of a pandemic in comparison with the standard seasonal flu outbreak – most deaths in a seasonal outbreak occur in the over 65s, whereas in a pandemic, the deaths tend be spread across more age groups – 39% of deaths in the 15–44 years age bracket, 21% in 45–64 year olds and 21% in the 0–14 age bracket. It was also outlined that we are in actual fact, despite all the seemingly ‘scary’ facts, in very safe hands – there is constant awareness and surveillance of potential effects and outbreaks. This session in particular I found to be highly informative, as quite often the public are not given the full picture about pandemics, causing a lot of scaremongering, whereas if the information was signposted like it was here, there’d likely be more understanding, bringing me nicely to the final session of the day.

Lucy Harper welcoming the delegates

The final session of the Symposium involved a workshop, led by Sense About Science, who are in my opinion, a hugely important organization because they help to break down the barriers between scientists and members of the public. By this I mean they help researchers and scientists to strip back the details of their research applying it to a wider area. By ‘zooming out’ of their niche, to an broad area more likely to be understood, scientists can enable the public to see the ‘whole picture’ and understand that science itself is often full of potential grey areas with not everything black and white – this is of valuea as quite often the whole picture isn’t portrayed within the media and it is this that causes issues. Understanding and engaging with the public is an important part of scientific communication as is being openly honest with the public.

Now, this was my first ever symposium, and I definitely did not realize just how many FREEBIES there were going to be – I came away with USB sticks, a lanyard, information and leaflets, some jelly beans in the colors of SfAM, some cute, bobble-headed, sticky things with googly eyes and a truckload of PENS!!

On a slightly more serious note, I really enjoyed the symposium and would definitely recommend it to any young scientist with an interest in microbiology, whether they want to present work or not, it is a great experience and a brilliant chance to network and talk about microbiology with other young scientists, and increase your own knowledge. The keynote speakers are always going to be a highlight, but speaking in-depth about key issues such as those covered by Jonathan Van-Tam and Fin Twomey at the 7th Annual SfAM ECS Research Symposium, was both fascinating and something that I wouldn’t normally be able to access, so definitely not something to miss out on!

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  1. Hello, can SfAM symposium PowerPoint slides be available for us ? Can we have email and whatsapp contacts of Presenters and title of their presentation.

    • Hi Gbadeyan – Unfortunately I’m not sure the presentations are avaialable online, however, if you were to contact the Society for Applied Microbiology (SfAM) at communications@sfam.org.uk they might be able to help you better!

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