“Face to face”

Sometimes your chair can be just too comfortable

It can be all too easy to sit in front of a computer all day, allowing yourself to be sucked in by a vortex of emails, playing to the tune of other people’s agendas, and from which it is difficult to escape as work fatigue sets in. We become hypnotised by the screen and frozen to our chairs.

Or if you are a scientist, you might feel compelled to sit all morning at the bench reading agar plates, without any hope of reprieve…

So one of my resolutions for 2018 is more face to face time. Less time in front of a screen and more time talking to people, building relationships, and breaking down barriers. By this I don’t mean more formal meetings, just more informal chats, and not necessarily about work!

Sure, there will always be periods where I need to be in front of a computer:- reading articles, reviewing or writing laboratory policy, checking emails, analysing data, etc. But I want to ensure that this is the minority of my working day, not the majority.

The same applies if you are working at a bench. If you have a mountain of culture plates to read, or samples to set up, then the risk of boredom and consequent errors is a genuine one. Make sure such work is punctuated by occasional wandering and chats to your colleagues. Discuss possible ways to make the laboratory process more efficient, or just talk about what you got up to at the weekend! And never, ever feel compelled to stay at your bench just because your boss is sitting in the office nearby. This is not school anymore!

Being an introvert, I am not a natural conversationalist, but this year I am going to force myself out of my comfort zone. Disagreements with colleagues, which are inevitable from time to time,  are so much easier to navigate through if you have a good working relationship with them.

To quote the often used cliche. “Nobody has ever said on their deathbed ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office/at the bench.‘”

But it’s absolutely true.

So in 2018 I will endeavour to seek more face to face time, assuming I can find somebody who is not busy sending emails or reading plates…



“The Annual Ritual”

A lot of diagnostic clinical microbiology laboratories create an annual antibiogram at the start of each year in order to inform laboratory users of local susceptibility rates for common microbe/antibiotic combinations. Here is a link to the one for my own laboratory.

It is a time honoured tradition, a ritual of sorts… There would be uproar from the clinicians if we didn’t produce it.

And yet such antibiograms are fundamentally flawed…

They are overly simplistic because resistance rates can vary markedly in different patient cohorts and different sample types.

Take the following examples (based on my local data searches):

  • Antibiotic resistance rates for urinary isolates differ markedly according to age and sex. Urinary isolates from young women have much lower resistance rates to uropathogens than old men, with the difference being up to 25% depending on what microbe/antibiotic is being tested. This has very obvious implications for empirical antibiotic choices for UTI in different population cohorts.
  • Staphylococcus aureus resistance rates to mupirocin are much higher in young people with recurrent skin infections than in the (elderly) cohort about to go elective  joint replacement.
  • MRSA rate as a percentage of total Staphylococcus aureus isolates is significantly higher in superficial wound swabs than it is in blood cultures.

These are just a few examples of many, but the common theme here is that different exposure rates to particular antibiotics in different population cohorts lead to different resistance rates.

So I suspect the days are numbered of static antibiograms shown in table form on an A4 sheet of paper.

So last year!

I see the future being an electronic interactive antibiogram, possibly in the form of a smartphone “app”. The clinician enters a few important variables, such as patient age, sex, sampling site, and community/hospital patient, along with the microbe isolated. The app then calculates a more accurate antibiogram based on the particular cohort that this patient falls into.

This is the future, I am sure of it.

The only downside to such an approach is by splitting the total susceptibility data available into different cohorts, the sample size for analysis goes down, which can then lead to bigger margins of error in the results for less common microbe/antimicrobial combinations. This however could be addressed in the app by adding a disclaimer to resistance rates calculated from small sample numbers.

And maybe an interactive electronic antibiogram is in existence already, in an ultra-progressive laboratory somewhere… If so, please let me know!

I had better get started on creating that app!


” The Juggling Microbiologist”

What a year 2017 has been!

First and foremost, a new addition to the family. I wasn’t expecting that at the start of the year! Even more unexpected was the fact she needed emergency heart surgery at two weeks of age. A stressful time for everyone, and it definitely put work in perspective . As you can see however, she is now thriving.

Baby Isobel

I also managed to travel to a few new countries:- Austria, Hungary and New Caledonia. Each one was interesting in their own way. It is great to have the opportunity to visit new places, and experience different cultures.

And on top of all that, a new job!

Never being one to turn down a challenge, I have recently accepted a part-time job at the national Public Health microbiology laboratory in New Zealand. This means I now have two jobs, one that is focused on diagnostic microbiology, the other on Public Health microbiology (surveillance, typing, etc.).

It is a good mix, but you are right, I am a complete sucker for punishment…!

However, the main upside to having two jobs is variety. I have worked solely as a diagnostic clinical microbiologist for 11 years now. Same place, same job, day after day, week after week, month after month. I was slowly but surely becoming institutionalised. Change was badly needed, and this new post has given me that change. The learning curve will be steep, and the dynamics and politics of my new workplace will need to be learnt over the forthcoming months. I am looking forward to building lots of new working relationships.

Change is good.

The main downside of having two part-time jobs is that they might be part-time on paper, but full-time in reality! I will need to be very careful not to fall into that trap. Over the years I have seen many “martyrs” do full-time jobs on part-time wages. I always promised myself that would never happen to me.

I will need strong resolve to keep that promise.

So now I am juggling two jobs and a family of eight! As a consequence I will need to be utterly ruthless with regards to time management. I am looking forward to the challenge nevertheless.  Thankfully I am still young(ish), and hopefully I will be able to cope.

Is it sustainable in the long term? Who knows?

What I do know is that nothing is forever…

I suspect 2018 will be an interesting and challenging year, and like 2017, will hopefully bring a surprise or two.

This year, I am just going to relax, keep myself mentally and physically healthy, and juggle the very best I can.

Happy New Year!