There are many beginnings to the tale of Tina Joshi.
An unsettled childhood that forged a deep determination to prove that she could have value in the world. A love of science fiction and comics that inspired her to aim for the stars in creating innovative technologies to fight antibiotic resistance. A fascination, even love, of microbes and their potential to cause disease. Dustin Hoffman, in a hazmat suit.
For Tina, however, there is but one.
“I work on infectious diseases and do cool stuff in the lab” she suggests, with a laughter that is in itself dangerously catching. “That is the easiest way that people can relate to me. I find my title can become a barrier, so if anyone asks me what I do, I tell them that. That’s how you communicate with people.”
Dr Tina Joshi, Lecturer in Molecular Microbiology (for the record), in the School of Biomedical Sciences, has been at Plymouth for some 18 months now and that work in the laboratory has been just one of her many contributions to the academic community.
There is the extensive teaching and supervisory commitments on undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, her support of the University’s public engagement steering group, and contribution to the Athena Swan committee for the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry. There have been roles as a STEM ambassador and spokesperson on the issue of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). She was an invited speaker at New Scientist Live at the behest of the Royal Society of Biology, and was voted as a member of the Microbiology Society Policy Committee. And then there is the external recognition she has achieved through her entry for the prestigious Longitude Prize for her work to develop a handheld AMR testing device for clinical use, and being awarded the Hind Rattan – ‘The Jewel of India’ – by the Indian government to honour the international impact of her work.
“Yes, you could say that it has been hard to balance all aspects of the job,” she says. “You are a teacher, a tutor, a confidante in many cases. You’re doing administration, writing research grants, trying to bring in money, and do public engagement. And as an early career researcher, you’re trying to build your profile. It’s hard, and I have put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve – but I’m getting there. I’m part of the next generation and we’re coming!”
Though there have been one or two stumbling blocks and diversions along the way, it’s clear that from the moment Tina enrolled on the BSc (Hons) Microbiology degree at Cardiff, she has been travelling almost inexorably to this point.
“I was studying and working with some of the best microbiologists in the world,” she recalls of her undergraduate years. “I had key skills, I could talk to people, and I really became more confident and sure of myself.”
In her final year, Tina studied under Professor Eshwar Mahenthiralingam, who offered her the chance to work on a molecular biology research project into a cystic fibrosis pathogen. It offered her an insight into a range of techniques and equipment, as well as the human side of medicine, such as understanding how CF patients respond with their immune system. The resulting paper, on which she was credited, 'catapulted her career'.
“The experience greatly influenced my approach to students now,” she says. “They might not have confidence at first, but I try to instil it in them so that they can undertake a project or apply their skills to a job. It can make or break you, that faith from a supervisor.”
Tina experienced the flip-side of this dynamic during her PhD, which she enrolled on at Cardiff straight after graduation. Entitled 'Pathogenicity and a bedside real time detection assay for C. difficile in the faeces of hospitalised patients', it pushed Tina to acquire new skills in statistics, working with insects, networking and speaking at conferences – but the unsupportive style of supervision left her (out in the) cold.
“My PhD taught me how not to supervise,” she admits. “And that’s why I try to include my students – undergraduate and postgraduate – in things like conferences, when I can, and filming for the media. I feel very strongly that I am in this position of responsibility and I have a moral obligation to support them. Yes, research is of great importance, but students underpin all that we do.”
Fetching the handsomely bound thesis from a shelf, Tina says the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ that went into the PhD was still among her greatest achievements. Her work established that Clostridium. difficile spores utilise different methods of ‘sticking’ to surfaces, which has clinical implications for the way they must be treated – even the same strain in different patients. And her analysis of the C. diff genome proved it was possible to identify two toxins and two particular gene sequences in each toxin, which would have great potential to be developed into a testing device.
This was explored over the course of a number of postdoctoral research projects, all at Cardiff, during which Tina worked to translate and commercialise the scientific theory. It resulted in several patents, the development of a prototype C. diff detection device, related research projects on anthrax and MRSA, and for Tina, the experience of working with a variety commercial companies.
And for a moment, it looked as if Tina’s future might lie in the private sector, particularly after she was shortlisted for, but failed to land, two lecture posts at different universities. For the first time since she entered higher education, she felt she was at a crossroads.
“I had several interviews for science liaison posts,” she says, “And I was set to meet a big company in Cardiff when I saw there was a job at Plymouth. I knew that (Professor) Mat Upton was there, that there was an excellent medical school, and that there was capacity and good grants – and I could immediately see myself developing in that environment. It was an ideal opportunity, but I also knew that I could help the university in return. So I had the interview at Plymouth and they offered me a job on the same day. The Cardiff firm also made me an offer, but academia was the dream, so I turned them down and came to Plymouth.”
With the new post has come a change of focus for her commercialisation work. Now, Tina is translating her expertise into something that can be used at point of care, and is working with a company to bring together mini-microwave technology and a bio-sensor, and housed inside something as small as a mobile phone. It is her contribution to stemming the advance of antimicrobial resistance.
“In 2013, there were 27 million antibiotics prescribed to patients, when only 13 million were needed,” she says. “And while that is slowly reducing, the underlying problem is that diagnostics in this area have not moved forward for 70 years. So doctors will prescribe an antibiotic, and it takes a week to establish whether or not it is working. But if you had a way of testing a sample and obtaining results right there in the surgery, then you could get that first prescription right, and you’d reduce the risk of feeding antibiotic resistance.”
It is, she says, complementary to the work of colleague Professor Upton, who is developing a new portfolio of antibiotics. And it takes its inspiration from her deep-rooted love of science – and science fiction.
“Star Trek was a staple of my childhood,” she says. “I know it sounds nuts, but seeing that innovation on the screen I used to say to myself ‘imagine if I could do that?!’ Later, as a teenager, I watched the film Outbreak and I thought it was incredibly cool. There was Dustin Hoffman in his mask, striding along, saving the world, and I thought ‘I’d like to do that’. I realised that microbiology was a massive area and that I wanted to do something around infection. I recently screened the film for my students so they could judge for themselves whether it was a worthy inspiration!”
The evident potential of her work has been recognised by her entry for the Longitude Prize, the ￡8 million challenge launched by the government in 2014 to help solve a key research question. The rise of antibiotic resistance was chosen by the general public following a vote, and is now being overseen by Nesta and supported by Innovate UK.
Despite the scale of the reward, Tina has found it challenging to find engineers willing to help her marry the different technologies needed to ‘break open’ the bacteria and analyse its DNA at such a small scale. And as an early career researcher, she is becoming aware that disciplinary silos can be hard to penetrate.
“It’s the frontier of innovation and it requires collaboration,” she says. “If you work together you can achieve remarkable things – just look at exemplar universities like Swansea and how they are moving up the league tables. Academia is not a utopia of course, but I do believe it is vital that we support the new generation of early career researchers who are collaborating and doing things differently.”
There is a radio on in Tina’s laboratory on the fourth floor of the Davy Building. Undergraduate students chat easily with her, and each other, as they go about their projects, handling some of the most virulent bacteria you could ever not wish to meet. A postgraduate student asks if he can see her next week, and the answer is ‘of course’. It is a picture of collegiate harmony.
“I’ve had ups and downs in my life,” Tina finishes. “Having grown up and seen family tragedy, I used to wonder ‘what am I here for?’, and I knew that I didn’t want to have a life where it didn’t mean anything. Now, I have my science and I want to use it to do something about some of the issues in the world. It gives me energy to enjoy life, and I hope my students feel the same way too.”