Analysing antimicrobials and studying skin; experiences in the Infection Prevention and Control industry

27th January 2023

Two PhD students recently spent three months with an infection prevention and control company as part of their PhD training.

Two young women wearing lab coats and gloves smiling inside a lab.

Industrial Cooperative Awards in Science & Technology (iCASE) PhD programmes are doctoral studentships where businesses work together with an academic partner.

We spoke to PhD students Maria Solsona Gaya, who is based here at the Quadram Institute, and Katie Griffiths, from the University of East Anglia, to find out more about their placements in industry with GAMA Healthcare.

Studying antimicrobial resistance

“I chose the MRC Doctoral Antimicrobial Research Training iCASE doctoral training programme as it was the perfect opportunity to have a better insight into the threat of antimicrobial resistance,” says Maria who is part of Professor Mark Webber’s research group.

She continues, “Studying the evolution of antimicrobial resistance is important to help the prevention and eradication of microbial infections. The collaboration between the Quadram Institute and GAMA Healthcare, an infection prevention company, is an opportunity for me to learn new techniques in a world-class institution and have a broader perspective of the industry field.”

In her PhD, Maria is investigating disinfectant resistance to inform how to better control hospital-acquired infections.

“We would like to understand how the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus and Enterococcus faecalis respond to commonly used biocides such as quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs), chlorhexidine and octenidine. The overall aim of my project is to prevent the threat of biocide resistance and help develop the next generation of infection prevention and control products,” explains Maria.

As part of her PhD, she spent three months working at GAMA Healthcare, “I moved to Halifax, to the Fellows Research Centre where GAMA’s  Research and Development is located. I used the skills and techniques that I gained during the two years of my PhD so far, to test for biocide susceptibility with their real-life products. During these three months my main goal was to generate data for the next generation of disinfectant formulations that the company is developing.”

Understanding skin’s response to antimicrobial products

Maria’s placement at GAMA Healthcare coincided with a placement of another iCASE PhD student Katie Griffiths from the University of East Anglia.

Katie explains her research, “My PhD project in Dr Jelena Gavrilovic’s group, as part of the Norwich Skin Platform, looks at the skin response to bacteria and developing an all-human model to better investigate these responses.”

“Studying skin has always been something that interests me – it’s the organ that is the barrier between us and the world. It’s not just large in scale but involves microscopic communication between our skin and the organisms that live on it.”

Katie describes how her placement at GAMA Healthcare forms part of her PhD project, “My placement involved working on existing and new antimicrobial compounds with the goal of bridging the industry standard skin model with the skin model that I have been working on throughout my PhD”.

Learning skills in industry

“Initially there was a steep learning curve to my first week on placement,” reflects Katie.

“There were established experimental protocols that involved a lot of acronyms. Both Maria and I were thrown into a working lab environment that was so different from all the academic lab environments we’d previously been in. This was challenging but also exciting.”

“It helped that I began this placement with Maria – as we tested each other on what each acronym meant and helped each other with experiment run-throughs.”

Maria highlights the wider support from the team at GAMA Healthcare too, “Everyone in the company was very helpful, and our industrial supervisor Harsha Siani gave us all the support needed throughout the three months.”

She continues, “I learnt how to perform industrial testing and attended different meetings and training where I familiarised myself with new concepts about product development and regulations (e.g. Biocidal Product Regulation)”.

Katie echos the insight into industry practices, “One of my highlights from placement was getting to see a range of experiments carried out to British Standards, which differed if the product was intended to work on surfaces or on skin – something I had no experience of before.”

“The placement gave me other chances for development like attending online talks about cosmetic science and regulatory practice, where I learnt a lot about developing products and marketing them. The structure of the placement allowed a lot of time for reflection – both during and after the placement. I could clearly see my time management and communication skills had grown throughout the placement” says Katie.

Networking Opportunities

Maria and Katie’s experiences at GAMA Healthcare had further benefits.

“I have expanded my network and benefitted from their interdisciplinary teams,” points out Maria. “I enjoyed presenting my research outputs in GAMA’s first Academic Research Day. It was a great opportunity to communicate my science to a wider audience, which led to enriching discussions and new ideas.”

“An unexpected highlight for me was how everyone across the different departments in the company (Microbiology, Formulation, and Materials Science) were all working towards the same goal, so feedback on results came from a lot of different perspectives and really helped me with relevant experimental design,” adds Katie.

Harsha Siani, Scientific Affairs Director at GAMA comments, “As an industry partner on the iCASE studentships it was important for us to give Katie and Maria the opportunity to work in a multidisciplinary team (and sometimes we forgot about all the acronyms!) and share their results but also explain why their work was relevant to various departments, be it marketing, new product development, regulatory or clinical. We were lucky to have such committed and enthusiastic students who embraced industry research. The support and technical expertise of Professor Webber, Dr Gavrilovic and Dr Bevan has also been invaluable to us. Hopefully this will be the first of many iCASE studentships and collaborations between GAMA, Quadram and UEA”.

Bringing industry insight back to the lab

After their placements with GAMA Healthcare, Katie and Maria are now back on Norwich Research Park, continuing their research.

“The data that I generated on my placement will be included in my thesis as it is tightly connected with my research topic. From an industrial perspective, this data would support global regulatory submissions and marketing claims that are backed with the latest scientific methods differentiating GAMA’s products from others on the market,” explains Maria.

“iCASE partnerships are the perfect example of knowledge transfer,” she highlights.

Katie reflects, “The placement with GAMA Healthcare was the first opportunity I had to have hands-on experience with a range of antimicrobial products. It has helped inform a lot of my future experiment design that will incorporate some of these products and given a fresh perspective on previous experiments.”

Future career paths

Looking ahead, what are Maria and Katie’s plans for the future?

Maria says, “For now, I am focusing on finishing my PhD, as I am half-way through. In the future, I would like to carry on my scientific career and either stay in academia or move to industry. Now, after the placement I have a broader idea of what is like to work in industry.”

She adds, “An industry placement is a great opportunity to learn different skills and gain a general understanding of how a company works.”

On her future plans Katie highlights the impact of the placement, “This placement has made me reconsider what I want to do with my future. I still like the freedom that academia offers with being in charge of your own time and experiments, however I really enjoyed being a part of a multifaceted team working to create physical products. I know I want to continue working closely with skin, but beyond that I’m keeping my options open.”

Katie adds “If the opportunity is there for an industry placement, I’d say to go for it! The opportunities and skills I developed whilst on my placement was something I don’t think I’d be able to get in an academic setting.”

Maria and Katie conclude, “We really enjoyed our placement at GAMA Healthcare. It was a great opportunity to strengthen the bridge between academia and industry.”

Related People

Related Targets

Targeting antimicrobial resistance

Antimicrobial Resistance

Related Research Groups

Webber group

Mark Webber

Related Research Areas

Targeting microbes in the food chain

Microbes in the Food Chain