Microbiology: the bigger picture

Hilary Lappin-Scott is professor of microbial ecology, the study of how microorganisms interact with their environment and with each other. Momentum caught up with her to find out why understanding life at the micro-scale has such big implications for society

Microbes, single-celled organisms that include bacteria, algae, fungi, and plankton, are everywhere. Invisible to the naked eye, they can be found ten kilometres below the ocean floor, inside scalding hot springs, in rivers and streams, and even on teeth.  “There is no such thing as a sterile environment,” says Professor Lappin-Scott, “and without microorganisms life as we understand it would not even be possible.

Hilary Lappin-Scott

Hilary Lappin-Scott

Cluster of E.coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times. Photo by Eric Erbe, Christopher Pooley, USDA, ARS.

Virtually all of Professor Lappin-Scott’s research has been funded by industry, with Unilever, Proctor and Gamble, Kodak, and Texaco among the household names to have supported her in recent years. “The commercial potential for microbiology really cannot be overestimated, and not just in terms of the large, multinational companies,” says Professor Lappin-Scott. “There are also many knowledge transfer opportunities for smaller businesses, start-ups, and spin-out companies. We’re looking at life at the smallest scale, but our research is making a huge difference.”

Professor Lappin-Scott is currently President of the Society for General Microbiology and a member of the International Board of the American Society of Micobiology. She was President of the International Society for Microbial Ecology from 2006 to 2010, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, the Society of Microbiology, and the European Academy of Microbiology. Professor Lappin-Scott is Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Strategic Development/Change Management) at Swansea University.
Pic of Hilary Lappin-Scott

Cluster of E.coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times. Photo by Eric Erbe, Christopher Pooley, USDA, ARS.