In Conversation with Dr. Fiona Walsh…


On November 11th,  a talk will be delievered in Athlone Institute of Technology called ‘TALES OF ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE’ by Dr. Fiona Walsh of NUI, Maynooth. We caught up with Dr. Walsh in advance of the festival to find out  what inspires her and  to learn more about the types of projects she is working on…

What inspired you to work in a science related field?

I like the idea of going to work and not knowing what I’ll find out. I guess I’ve never really lost that but why question that most small children ask. I love the idea that we can find the answers to these questions ourselves and see if the answers that we were given in books or by teachers is actually true. Science for me is all about asking questions and then figuring out how we can answer them. The more questions I asked the more I wanted to keep going and find out more.

What types of research projects are you working on relating to antibiotics?

I’m interested in antibiotic resistance and antibiotic discovery. When we think of antibiotic resistance and antibiotics we usually picture a hospital or patient. But most antibiotics were produced by bacteria or mushroom type creatures in soil. The bacteria in soil and the environment have protected themselves from antibiotics for millennia. I’m interested in looking at how antibiotic resistance gets from its origins in the environment in to bacteria in people as well as how the use of antibiotics in humans and animals affects the bacteria in the environment. This is difficult because we need to look at bacteria in soil, water and animals as well as humans and the world is a very large place.
Another project that I am working on is looking for new antibiotics in soil. The first antibiotics were discovered by looking at bacteria in soil using technology from the 1950s. I’ve updated these processes to use 21st century technology and science to look at soil bacteria that produce antibiotics.

Some people are nervous about giving their children too many antiobiotics, why is this the case?

Antibiotics are precious medicines. They will only work if they can s top the infection. The more we expose bacteria to antibiotics the higher the chances are that we will help the resistant ones to survive. This is true for all people, not just children.

Why is it important for NUIM to take part in such events as the Midlands Science Festival?

Maynooth University has a great science faculty and I think it’s important for people to see what research goes on in their region and in Ireland. For many people universities are places to go to get a degree, but there is another world within our universities that is expanding boundaries of science and finding out information that wasn’t known yesterday. This is an extremely important part of the university and one that the public should be able to hear about.

Are there are any specific challenges for women in science now?

Until there are an equal number of men and women as professors and leaders in science there will always be challenges for women in science. Identifying women that have made it to the top in science is difficult. I recently read an article about the way in which men and women read maps. The myth has been that women can’t read maps. The passage said that maps have been made by men for men for centuries. Once the maps were made by women there was no difference between the genders in ability to read the map. I think that this is also true of science careers, until women are visible as leaders in science we will have only one map of how to get to the destination of being world-class scientist.

What is your favourite science fact?

The human body has ten times more bacteria cells than human cells.