Leona Martin - From Nursing to Microbiology Photo of Leona Martin

A fascination with bacteria has led AccesScience ’06 runner-up Leona Martin, to a career in Microbiology. “You have to admire bacteria for being able to function and live when they are one billionth our size” says the enthusiastic researcher.

Leona’s path into research was slightly different from other students. She initially trained as a nurse in Drogheda and then worked in St. Vincent’s hospital in Dublin for three years before doing a BSc in Microbiology at UCD. Leona is currently in the third year of her PhD at the School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science at UCD.


What was your favourite subject at school?

"In school, my favourite subjects were Science and Maths. For as long as I can remember I was always curious about how things worked and why, always trying to reason and analyse things out in my head. I started studying science in secondary school and knew straight away I had found the one thing that could lead me on the way to answering some of these questions. I studied all three science subjects for my Leaving Certificate, but Biology was my favourite; it covers so many diverse areas like Zoology, Botany and Genetics.”


Why did you go back to studying science after working as a nurse?

"Science was what I originally wanted to do and I did a part-time diploma in Nursing in UCD while working so I never completely put away the books. I made the huge decision to go back to college, to go to UCD and study Science. I enjoyed nursing but I felt I could be more fulfilled. Financially, it was difficult to give up a job and become a student again – how was I going to I pay for my car and my rent? And of course, the age factor  - being 25 when everyone else in the class is 17! But as soon as I started, I knew it was the right decision. I was probably much more focused, knowing that this was my chance.”

What is Microbiology?

"Microbiology is the study of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses and fungi. I’ve always found bacteria fascinating, starting from when I was nursing. It’s incredible to think how something that you can’t see can wreak so much havoc. You only have to look at something like MRSA outbreak and loads of other examples, to see the loss of life and the huge economic effects.”

Why did you decide to do a postgraduate degree?

"For my fourth year project, I worked at Baxter Healthcare. I realized then that I wanted to get more out of my degree before going on to work in industry. I thought I could make more of a contribution if I got a better understanding of methods and techniques to back up what I had learned in my degree. During a PhD you learn how to think laterally to solve problems. Initially your supervisor guides you until you start understanding where you’re going. It’s a bit like a map: there might be various routes to get to Galway, but which is the best one?

How do you spend a typical day?

"I’m generally in the lab either looking at DNA under a camera, setting up cells to grow, or doing an enzyme assay and checking how good a protein is at eating up a food source. I might also be supervising undergraduate labs, where we’ve got to try to get across the importance of working in a clean, sterile environment. You want to work with particular bacteria, not those on your hands and in air!”

What do you enjoy most about it?

"Genetics is a very exciting field. Probably the best thing is the feeling that I’m understanding more about the gene every day. It’s challenging as it’s such a huge playing field, and I’m looking for particular information and then putting it together like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Anything that you don’t enjoy?

"If I had to say something, it would be the data analysis side. I love doing the work, but then sitting in front of computer compiling my results…I don’t exactly look forward to that!”

What are your interests outside of work?

"Outside work I love to socialise with my family and friends in many ways including the movies, table quiz, salsa dancing, going out for dinner or staying in to cook for when the girls come over to visit.”

What would you like to do when you finish? What are the typical careers for a microbiology student?

"I’d like to get some experience in industry, in particular in the pharmaceutical industry. Microbiologists often work in the food and drinks industry, for example Guinness brewery have a huge microbiology research lab. Enzymes are the key to many processes; they can be made chemically but bacteria can make enzymes more cheaply. The pharmaceutical industry is tapping into the idea of fermenting bacteria to produce drugs. Antibiotics like penicillin come from bacteria. Microbiologists also work in the medical field and in the manufacture of household products  - it’s enzymes that are in the washing powder that cleans your clothes!”

What would you say to secondary school students who might think that science is too difficult or boring?

"Science just takes more thought. It’s definitely not more difficult than any other subject, it just takes time and thought. You learn so many skills and there’s such a wide range of opportunities for science graduates. My advice is don’t be put off. Go for it!”




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