One of the main goals of this blog has been for our team to highlight the work and lives of amazing women in STEMM, both senior and junior, both in the UK and internationally and both those we know already and those we would like to meet. As we reached the European continent on our virtual journey this week, this therefore presented an excellent opportunity to put the spotlight on my lovely sister, Dr Julia Weikum, who is living and working in Oslo, Norway.
Julia is a product developmental scientist at an international medical diagnostics company called Gentian Diagnostics where she started in April 2021 after a short stint working on supporting medical professionals in the Covid-19 vaccination process. She has a background in molecular biology and biochemistry which she studied at different universities in Germany. Last year, Julia also completed her PhD in biochemistry from the University of Oslo as well as the Technical University of Denmark.
What does your work as a product developmental scientist look like?
In my current job, I contribute to the development of novel medical products which, for the company I work in, focuses on biomarkers that can be detected in blood, fecal or urine samples. A biomarker is typically a molecule, for example a protein, that can be measured and, depending on its concentration, gives an indication whether a certain disease is present or how a disease is developing. I work specifically on a biomarker that plays a role in heart failure and heart diseases, so using this biomarker in a diagnostic test can give an indication on whether a patient has heart failure or a risk of heart failure in the future.
In my company I am part of the research and development team. We cover a lot of different steps in product development, all the way from project initiation to the preparation of patents, optimisation of a new product and validation. When this is completed, the product will then go to operations where another team works more on transferring the results from research and development into an operation procedure for producing the product for the market. Along the way, there are other aspects to consider, such as approval of the product by regulatory authorities, before it can finally go to its end users. For the biomarker testing I am working on this will eventually be hospitals and doctors who could then administer such diagnostic tests.
Before your current role, you completed a PhD in protein biochemistry at the University of Oslo and the Technical University of Denmark. Can you tell us a little about your research?
In my PhD I worked on bacterial proteins within two larger projects. In both cases, I investigated and characterised proteins, which play a role in the bacterial infection process. One of them is important in the initial step of an infection when the bacteria bind to the host cell – in this case the human cell – and can then enter or start manipulating the host cell. The second protein I worked on plays a role for the defence of the bacteria against the human immune system and is therefore involved at a later point in the infection process.
For both proteins I carried out structural characterisations, so I tried to understand what the protein looks like because this also gives an indication on how the protein works. In addition, I also did biophysical, enzymatic and kinetic studies which contributed to better understanding the characteristics of the protein and processes it may be involved in. The proteins I studied play a role, for example, in E. coli infections but are also present in other bacteria; a better understanding on what proteins in these bacteria look like and how they function thus gives us a better understanding of the entire infection process and makes it easier to target the bacteria in the future through novel drugs or other treatments.
How do your research outcomes relate to our everyday lives and society more generally? Or in other words, why should a non-expert like me care about it?
I worked on characterising bacterial proteins and understanding the infection process of specific bacteria but in the future this knowledge could potentially be used to design novel drugs that target bacteria, such as E. coli. E coli is actually a common member of the bacterial flora in the gastrointestinal tract, but it can also play a role as a pathogen and cause sickness. There are different strains of E. coli, common ones for example are intestinal strains, such as so called Enterohemorrhagic E. coli. This ’version’ of the bacteria is responsible for 2.8 million acute cases of illness worldwide today, including diarrhoea and other digestive diseases, leading to waste economic burdens on countries’ health systems [https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24750096/].
Whenever it comes to bacterial infection, antibiotic resistance is always a challenge. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has even stated that antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development [https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/antibiotic-resistance]. The problem here is that most types of bacterial infection, especially very common ones, are treated with antibiotics, but this extensive use can mean that antibiotics become less effective against bacteria over time. The frequent use of antibiotics these days is also not just limited to the human population, it is also prevalent, for example, in cattle farming. As the development of novel antibiotics is difficult, less and less new antibiotics become available. However, this leads to the potential issue in the future that bacterial infections may not be treatable with antibiotics anymore because certain bacteria may no longer react to them. This could become a challenge for very common diseases, like throat infections, as well as more severe illnesses, such as sepsis, where finding a way to treat the infection is a life-or-death situation.
Research into characterising the structure and properties of bacterial proteins, like I did for my PhD, therefore helps with better understanding infection processes and the specific role of proteins in them. This knowledge in turn can help to design new mechanisms for drugs to attack bacteria. It could also lead to the development of drugs that by targeting specific bacteria would reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance.
Did you always want to become a scientist? What motivated you to start a career in STEMM?
I always had an interest in science; back in school, for example, biology and chemistry were my favourite subjects. So, this is how I initially started along this route, but what has kept me interested in science as a career in later times is actually the variety of opportunities it provides. STEMM is very much a growing field and I think there are a lot of different options to choose from for your career. For example, with my background in biochemistry, many people imagine that a typical job would be as a researcher in a laboratory, but, of course, there are so many different directions that one can take instead, e.g. working as a patent lawyer or as a medical science liaison, in which case you function as a company’s expert for specific drugs at the interface between clinicians, research and the pharmaceutical industry.
Another point and perhaps a stereotypical statement about scientists is that it is for idealistic people who want to save the world. While slightly exaggerated, it, of course, does play a role for the motivation for your work that you can see how your contributions are helping the world and making it a better place.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in biomedical / pharmaceutical research? Are there any skills that they should learn?
It depends a little bit on which field you want to work in, but I would recommend that it is important to be open to adapt to different research directions. The field is quite variable and so it can happen that projects go into a different direction than originally anticipated from the research question, as was the case for example for my own PhD project. For me, this is also actually one of the reasons that motivated me to start a career in science – the fact that the work in biochemistry and pharmaceutical research is never the same and there are new challenges every day. You have to adapt to what your results show you and to what you can learn from the research of others through publications. So, this is something that people should consider adopting when deciding to work in this field: keep an open mind and be willing to adjust to changes.
Another aspect that I would advise is to not be afraid to give your own input. Science lives very much from an open discussion, so sharing your opinion is really beneficial.
And, finally, having talked about various scientific aspects, what about you personally? What do you spend your free time on at the moment?
I volunteer in an organisation called Pint of Science which is a science communication group present worldwide. The branch here in Norway only started last year so we are quite new. We are currently organising the three-day Pint of Science Festival during which scientists from university, industry and other organisations share their work with a wider audience.
I am very excited to contribute to this as I find science communication extremely important and also a responsibility for scientists. We have to communicate better with the general public, show them what we are working on and advertise our work.
So, the festival will take place from the 19th to 21st May in Norway. We have different branches in the big cities, like Oslo, Trondheim and Bergen, each of which organise their own program with scientists from their city. Due to the Corona situation, however, everything will be streamed online this year which means that everyone in the world can watch it. It is an excellent opportunity to learn more about what researchers in Norway work on and there will be a variety of topics covered in the festival sessions. For example, some of the talks will be connected to current Covid-19 research, while others are more specific for Norway focusing, for example, on maritime research. Finally, in Oslo, we will also have an evening focusing on radiation where researchers will present work on how they use radiation, for example in structural biology as I did in my PhD. The complete program can be checked on the website and will include not only talks but also quizzes and interactive activities.
To find out more about what Julia is up to, check out:
- Pint of Science Festival Norway: https://pintofscienceno.wixsite.com/2021
- Julia’s PhD thesis and her lecture on bacterial membranes: https://www.mn.uio.no/farmasi/english/research/news-and-events/events/disputations/2020/weikum-julia-anna.html
- A Norwegian newspaper article about Julia’s research (in Norwegian): https://titan.uio.no/farmasi/2020/frykta-tarmbakterie-gjev-fra-seg-hemmelegheiter?utm_campaign=fai&utm_medium=tarmbakterie&utm_source=disp