"Accept your achievements and enjoy your time": Dr Lois Ogunlana for Black History Month 2022

The fourth in our Black History Month 2022 blog series, Dr Lois Ogunala tells us about her work combating antibiotic resistance, the ups and downs of research, and how to care for yourself and others in science.

A person wearing glasses holds a 50ml Falcon tube containing lime-green liquid

Hi everyone. My name is Lois Ogunlana, and I am a microbiologist at the Department of Biology, University of Oxford. My research is about the genetic and phenotypic factors that drive the maintenance of antibiotic resistance. I focus on an antibiotic called colistin, which is used as a last-resort treatment against bacterial pathogens. Sadly, colistin misuse has led to the emergence and spread of a mobile colistin resistance gene. I look at sequence data for genetic variations in regions of this gene and recreate them in the lab to study their effects.

I had always been interested in microbiology since I started learning about bacteria in high school. I found it fascinating that such tiny organisms could have such large positive and/or negative impacts on human health. Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to healthcare. By studying the evolutionary drivers of antibiotic resistance, I hope to make a small contribution to the understanding of factors enabling the spread of resistance.

Like others in biology, my work has ups and downs. Molecular biology often involves transferring colourless liquids into other colourless liquids (very far from the exciting portrayals of biologists in movies).

Bacterial colonies growing on an agar plate

However, I managed to have a cool science moment when using fluorescent proteins to study the impact of antibiotic resistance on horizontal gene transfer between bacteria. My bacteria make proteins that turn them green or red depending on if they contain certain plasmids. These colours are visible by eye which leads to very jazzy bacterial cultures and plates.

Although efforts are being made to increase diversity, I often find that I am the only black person in a room. In addition to feeling like the odd one out, this also has led to a lot of imposter syndrome. When I started my PhD, I often wondered if I was good enough. My advice to others is that you are more than your skin colour. You have been chosen for your skill and expertise. Accept your achievements and enjoy your time without the burdens of imposter syndrome.

Secondly, your mental health is important so be sure to tackle any issues as they arise to avoid problems later and make time to do other things you enjoy outside of work.

Lastly, particularly to PhD students, it is important to have a supportive work environment. You will be spending most of your day in the lab/office with others in your group/department. Be sure to meet with your potential PI and others in the group before you join to make sure it is a good workplace. If you feel supported at work, going to the lab ends up being both fulfilling and fun.