Professor Martin Maiden awarded Marjory Stephenson Prize 2021

This article was first published on the Microbiology website.

The Microbiology Society Prizes recognise excellence and are awarded to those making significant contributions in the field of microbiology, based on nominations received from our membership. They are awarded at our Annual Conference, where the winners also present their lectures. Ahead of the Marjory Stephenson Prize Lecture 2021: The application of population genomics to meningococcal disease prevention, taking place this morning, Conor Feehily, Irish Division Representative of the Society’s Early Career Microbiologists’ Forum Executive Committee interviewed Professor Martin Maiden to find out more about his work and how it feels to win a Microbiology Society prize.

Congratulations on being awarded the Marjory Stephenson Prize, how does it feel to be honoured in this way?

I’m enormously proud. Somewhat surprised, and perhaps a little bit ambivalent. What I strive to remember is that science is a collective endeavour and we perhaps place too much focus on individuals. Consequently, I feel a bit of a hypocrite for accepting it. Very few of us as scientists make contributions that would not have happened if we had never existed. Things might have been done a little bit later, or a bit differently, but it will have been done by someone else at some time, because that’s the nature of the scientific endeavour.

Prizes can perhaps be best used to pass on messages to people coming into science, to help them to make decisions about their own careers. If I’ve been perceived to be successful, that’s great and we can highlight how I’ve been successful, but more importantly also how I’ve failed, which is a critical part of how science makes progress that we don’t always emphasise enough. All of us make errors. Scientists are people and people make mistakes. Science, on the other hand, is a process that we get right collectively.

Developing multi-locus sequence typing (MLST) has surely been a highlight of your career; is there any other personal achievement in your career that you are most proud of?

Kick-starting MLST is something I am very proud of, as this is something which happened sooner and in a slightly different way than it otherwise might have, had I not been on the scene. The early use of the Internet to disseminate curated sequence data is an aspect of which I am especially proud. Of course, MLST or something like it would have happened sooner or later, as a number of people were thinking in a similar way around that time.

I do take particular satisfaction in the UK meningococcal carriage (UKMenCar) studies, which we did in 1999–2001 when serogroup C conjugate vaccines were introduced in the UK, because I’m pretty confident that, had I not been around, those studies would not have been done. It was an enormous collective effort, but I provided the leadership and molecular analysis, and secured the funding. If I were to take any credit for anything, it would be for that. Without these studies, we would have lost the opportunity to gain an important piece of evidence concerning the impact of the meningococcal conjugate vaccines. Before we did these studies, there was scepticism about whether there would be any population effects. We often do not understand all of the science about vaccines until they have been deployed, and this was a case in point. The UKMenCar studies gave us direct evidence that herd immunity worked for these vaccines, and they also told us which aspects of school children’s behaviour drove transmission. It changed the way people viewed the efficacy of meningococcal vaccinations from direct personal protection to the herd immunity effect. This had major implications for the deployment of meningococcal vaccines globally.

One of my mantras is that good public health is boring because nothing happens. If public health is exciting you’ve got a problem. My life has been dedicated to trying to make public health uninteresting.

Did you have a role model or a mentor that shaped the way you thought about science and progressed through your career?

I’ve interacted with many people who have had a big influence on me and it seems invidious to name a few, but here goes. The book The Natural History of Infectious Disease by Macfarlane Burnet, which I read as a sixth form student, interested me in infectious disease, whilst making a convincing argument that, as a problem, infectious disease had been solved! Colin Kaplan, who was Professor of Microbiology when I was an undergraduate at the University of Reading (UK) and who worked on smallpox eradication, was a real inspiration. I learnt the art of practical science investigation from my PhD supervisor Pete Henderson and I was also very much encouraged and supported by Richard Henderson at that time. I then went on to the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC) to work on infectious disease (specifically meningococcal disease) which was considered a slightly odd thing to do at the time (not the least, I fear, by Richard!) and it was here that I set up a lab with Ian Feavers. John Maynard Smith, Brian Spratt, and Mark Achtman helped me think about bacterial populations and evolution.

What are some of the scientific discoveries of the last five years that excite you most?

Science did not develop as I imagined it would when I was a postgraduate. I have lived through an era where it became very easy to generate large volumes of sequence data and I’ve tried to utilise that. Technologies are developing all the time but using these data for improved understanding has always lagged behind. Sequencing technologies are an example of this: it is now very much easier to collect information than it is to interpret it. So, what have we done? We’ve collected oodles of information! Some people might accuse my career of doing that, but I’ve tried hard to avoid that trap, attempting to answer specific problems with the new technologies as they become available. I never developed technologies or databases because that was a priority, but because I wanted to use them to solve problems. MLST came out of my work on meningococcal vaccines and became available as a practical tool just in time for us to use it for the UKMenCar studies at scale, for example.

The exciting things that have happened very recently include the ability to predict protein structure. This is a game changer and has not happened the way I thought it would, with improved understanding of the biophysics of amino acids, but rather by utilising artificial intelligence approaches. Thinking back to when I was a graduate student, I think I would have underestimated our ability to generate sequence data of the succeeding 30 years but over-estimated our ability to use it. I think these recent developments have just changed that.

The other exciting, very recent, development is the advent of licenced human RNA vaccines, although the proof of principle work happened back in the 1990s. RNA vaccines are very likely the future of vaccination. It took a global pandemic to get them established, but I think we now have a revolutionary way of developing, manufacturing and delivering vaccines.

What major challenges do you see lying ahead for microbiology research?

Niels Bohr is said to have said, "prediction is difficult, especially about the future". I think one of the problems is that we tend to think that, as we gain experience, this helps us to know what comes next but, as this year has shown, this is not very reliable. So, one can have a stab at it based on past experience, but one is almost always going to be wrong.

In general terms, I think the immediate future for microbiology is going to be good because of the pandemic. People now realise that public health and infectious diseases are important and have been neglected (of course, this may mean that we are just going to neglect something else!). Although the biggest challenge to humanity is going to be climate change, you never know which specific area of research is going to turn out to be most important. Therefore, we need to maintain an environment where people can follow their interests in terms of scientific investigation. Most of those people will not go on to do anything which becomes important or even right, but some will do things which become crucial. Scientists being allowed to follow their intellectual curiosity remains extremely important and very good value for money for society. The challenge for all science, including microbiology, is to establish that ecosystem of collectivity; again, not over-emphasising the individual. Allow microbiologists to follow their nose and give them the space to think and work, otherwise we won’t end up with the knowledge we need.

In the wake of the current pandemic, do you think it will be easier to convince the public of the importance of scientific research or are you worried about a rise of anti-expert sentiment?

I made a decision very early in the pandemic not to contribute to the arguments on Twitter, as there were so many disparate voices that adding another didn’t seem helpful. The science itself should be the authority and not the individual. In my view, too many people have used this pandemic to put themselves forward, rather than putting the science forward. We need to be very honest with the public and engage with them, being very clear about what we do and, very importantly, what we don’t know. We are not communicating effectively: for example, we haven’t gotten over to enough of the public the basic principles of how you stop disease transmission. Rather, we are communicating to them what the rules are, which are always changing, confusing the issue. This is not helped by the “trust me I’m a scientist” concept, which can lead to an anti-science reaction, because people don’t like being told what to do.

In my early career, public engagement was not emphasised and I’m trying to be better at it. We should be communicating science to the public at the start of the research process rather than at the end of it as something you stick on the end of a grant because you have to. There are, of course, some excellent examples of fantastic science communication and I’m trying to learn from them.

Let’s take you back to school and science is off the table – is there anything else you could see yourself doing?

Other than science, which I have wanted to do since I was at primary school, the only other career that really attracted me (which my mother was dead set against, by the way) was the performing arts, specifically acting. Of course, lecturing is a bit of an act, so perhaps I’ve fulfilled some of that aspiration. If I had had the ability, I would have loved to have been an opera singer. I used to sing a bit, but I’ve not sung properly for years.

What do you do to relax or switch off from your work and do you think it’s more difficult now with social networking?

I have very little patience with Twitter. I’m not sure it is a good thing, but that’s probably my age and on this issue, as a colleague once said to me: "It doesn’t matter what you think, Martin". I find social media difficult and a bit annoying, because I like to encourage people to do ‘slow science’: having a long-term agenda and thinking things through thoroughly, the very opposite of responding instantly in a few characters. Maybe if I were younger, I would interact with it a bit better. It is certainly true that instant data sharing can be enormously valuable and there is no doubt that social media facilitates that.

My family is extremely important to me and realistically you can’t be a scientist and do everything. I love reading and the theatre, which I do with my family, but many of my hobbies have had to go by the wayside over the past 20 years: I used to enjoy singing and hill walking very much and hopefully I’ll get back to them some time.

Marjory Stephenson was one of the first two women elected to the Royal Society and was 58 before she was given a lectureship. Over 70 years later do you think there is enough being done to encourage and support women into a career in science?

No, not at all! One issue is the concentration on early career development and, while this is important, I think the major problem is mid-career. We lose too many talented people mid-career and we waste too much talent and expertise. There are numerous opportunities to get your career started, but it is in mid-career, just as you are trying to establish yourself as an independent scientist, when family and other commitments bite. Junior faculty are generally expected to do everything: teaching, research, administration, and all-too frequently have to make unreasonable choices among these and personal commitments. Our profession is institutionally sexist or genderist, with too much emphasis placed on long hours and productivity metrics, such as publications in ‘high-impact’ journals. I’ve spent a lot of time supporting the members of my lab who have families. Around 20 children, including my own, have been born to members of my group, and many of my colleagues have worked with me for many years. It is a pleasure to see them maintain their careers and develop, but it is hard. Maybe this also means we have been slightly less ‘productive’ than we might have been at times, but it is important to treat colleagues as human beings and not as machines. I don’t think people are most creative when they work that way: innovation doesn’t require coal-face level working, it needs an environment in which individualism can flourish.

Have you got any advice for early career scientists and undergraduates who might feel like they have missed out on over a year of their career?

Persistence is everything in science and a successful career occurs over a long period of time. For many people it has been a terrible year, but it is one year of many and there will always be good and bad years. Conversely, there have been opportunities for some, especially those working in infectious disease microbiology. The current pandemic shows that in science things change and move on and new opportunities continually arise. "Chance favours the prepared mind" as Pasteur is reputed to have said. My experience is that a direction of travel is more important that a precise plan and always be true to yourself. Even if things do not go as you might have hoped, you will have the satisfaction of failing on your own terms which, to my mind, is better than succeeding on someone else’s: leave that to them.