Interview - A/Prof Leigh Knodler

Posted by on 23 September 2016 | Comments

leighkpicLeigh is a lab head at the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health, at Washington State University. She completed her PhD in biochemistry at the University of New South Wales, before heading overseas for a series of postdoctoral positions in California, Vancouver, and Montana. In 2012 she joined Washington State University to head a research group, where she investigates how Salmonella infect epithelial cells.

What’s your current area of research?
Our lab studies host-pathogen interactions related to bacterial infections of the human gut. We are primarily focused on Salmonella enterica, which causes food-borne illness, but also use other enteric bacteria such as Shigella flexneri or enteropathogenic E. coli, for comparison in our infection models. We use genetic, cell biological and microscopic approaches to tease apart how Salmonella colonises our intestinal epithelial cells, and how it exits from these cells to be transmitted from one person to another.

What drew you to microbiology originally?
I grew up on a farm in the Hunter Valley and always just wanted to be outside, playing in the dirt. I remember my Mum gave me a magnifying glass at a very young age because I was so interested in all the small bugs crawling around. Science was my favourite subject at school, even though it was not the easiest subject for me, and I originally trained as a biochemist (at the University of New South Wales), but I was studying biochemical pathways in protozoan parasites, so there was a link to microbes in my work back then. But it was not until I moved to the US for a postdoc and saw Stanley Falkow speak at a regional American Society of Microbiology meeting that I was drawn to the pathogenesis field. He is such a captivating speaker, and essentially the “father” of the study of bacterial pathogenesis. I ended up doing a second postdoc in Canada so I could work on Salmonella, and then I was hooked.

What does a standard day involve for you?
I don't start work until I am physically at work - it is very important for me to segregate my home life from my work life. First thing I usually deal with all the emails that I have received. After that, most days I am writing a grant or manuscript, or reviewing manuscripts. I might also attend a meeting as part of my work on graduate and masters student committees, or a seminar. I have one-on-one meetings with each of my lab members once a week, and we also hold weekly lab meetings with another investigator’s lab. Some days I will have an experiment to do – it is unusual for investigators to still be doing experiments because we are so busy with all the administrative tasks, but it is important for my psyche to be able to do so. I have managed to stay at the bench so far (I have been an assistant professor for 3 ½ years now), although not as much as I would like to be. Our experiments can take 12-16 hours by the time we have prepared the bacteria, done the actual infection and processed all the samples. These days are fun, but tiring, and I cannot do much else on these days.

How do you like to spend your time outside the lab?
I love renovating houses. The last two homes that my husband and I purchased were “renovators delights” and so I have tackled many of the renovations myself. I love the physicality of the process, and that you have something to show for all of your efforts. Science is rarely like this. I also like to play in my garden – I find digging in the dirt to be very therapeutic. My husband and I love to travel, although we are both scientists, and it is difficult to set aside as much time as we would like for this. And I find that hot yoga and mountain biking are good physical exercises to get rid of work frustrations.

What advice would you give to students/ECRs who are pursuing a career in research?
Be prepared for a challenge. Be stubborn and determined. And remind yourself often of why you find science fun. Science is not an easy profession, especially with so few jobs the higher up the ladder you climb and grant funding at an all time low. Our manuscripts are often rejected, and our experiments fail more often than they succeed. You need to develop a thick skin for dealing with this rejection – my thick skin is still in development even though I have been a scientist for a long time. However, the fleeting moments when your paper is accepted, your grant is funded, your experiment proved your hypothesis correct, you saw a great seminar or met a wonderful scientist make it all worth it.