A school art workshop that sparked a career in science

14th July 2023

How a creative science workshop started Xena Dyball’s career in science

Xena Dyball is a NRPDTP PhD student working in the Adriaenssens group and Juge group where she investigates how bacteriophages help bacteria adapt to the human gut environment. We caught up with Xena about what inspired her to study science and her current research project here at the Quadram Institute.

Xena smiling in front of a Science Art and Writing Trust banner, holding a book featuring the poem she wrote.

Science at school

“When I was 9 years old I took part in a workshop at my primary school. The workshop was run by the Science Art and Writing (SAW) Trust. The SAW Trust is a science education charity that aims to bring science into everyday lives and develop new ways to stimulate creativity, exploration and learning.

Although I took part in the workshop almost 15 years ago, I can remember it well. As 9-year-olds, we worked with scientists from the John Innes Centre, artists and professional writers to perform experiments and write science-inspired poetry.

The topic of our workshop was plant-derived natural products. We learnt about why plants produce scents and colours, and I vividly remember working with mint and lavender to investigate their smells and pigments.

During the workshop I worked with one of the writers to develop a poem entitled ‘Plant Science’ which was inspired by all of the plant-derived products I had learnt about that day. My poem ended up being featured in the ‘SAW showcase’ book, and various other promotional materials.

At school, I was very interested in science, but I also had a love for creative subjects.

Choosing which path to pursue for A-levels was quite a tough decision for me. Ultimately, I chose to stay in science as I felt I was better at academic subjects and thought it would provide me with more opportunities down the line.

I think it is great that there are organisations out there like the SAW trust that highlight these connections between disciplines that are traditionally viewed binarily as either academic or arts.

The SAW Trust shows that there is a lot of value in working across different disciplines.

Studying science at university

After sixth form, I decided to study biomedical sciences at the University of Warwick. As part of my degree, I did a master’s placement working at UKHSA Porton Down.

During my master’s placement I was assigned my own research project. I found that I loved being able to design and execute my own experiments independently in the lab.

The project really helped to boost my confidence, both in and out of the lab, and gave me an amazing introduction to the world of research.

This experience really changed my perspective on what a career in research would be like, and ultimately motivated me to want to develop more as an independent scientist and pursue a PhD.

Researching bacteriophages for a PhD

I think taking part in the SAW workshop when I was younger made me more aware of the science happening in Norwich. Norwich Research Park is one of the largest single-site concentrations of research in food, genomics, and health in Europe.

Although I’ve spent a lot of time studying and working elsewhere in the UK it is always something that has been in the back of my mind.

I am excited to be back in Norfolk and I am proud to be doing my PhD at the research park.

My PhD project is focused on the bacterium Ruminococcus gnavus, which is a commensal species found in the gut microbiome of more than 90% of the human population.

An overabundance of R. gnavus has been associated with various gastrointestinal disorders including inflammatory bowel disease, and recent research has shown that some capsule-less strains of R. gnavus can induce inflammation.

The capsule is a large structure composed of polysaccharides that covers the outer layer of the bacterial cell and plays a key role in cellular interactions. In R. gnavus the capsule presence prevents the cell wall polysaccharide, glucorhamnan, from interacting with immune cells and causing inflammation.

Changes to bacterial capsule phenotype have previously been linked to bacteriophage infection, so it was hypothesised that bacteriophages could be influencing the capsule phenotype of R. gnavus, and potentially other bacterial processes.

My project aims to elucidate the roles of bacteriophage infection in the adaptation of R. gnavus to the human gut and expand our understanding of the interactions occurring between phage-bacteria-host in this environment.

I ran into the SAW team at one of my PhD events and it was great to see that the trust is still going strong. It brought back a lot of memories for me.

Although science is not traditionally viewed as an artistic subject, I think there are lots of opportunities where you can showcase your creative flare and innovation in academia, whether it be through designing a poster or planning an experiment, so it suits me quite well as I feel like I am able to be creative in my work.

Related People

Related Targets

Targeting the understanding of the microbiome

Understanding the Microbiome

Related Research Groups

Evelien Adriaenssens

Juge group

Nathalie Juge

Related Research Areas

A green background with an illustration of a gut full of microbes.

Food, Microbiome and Health