#SciComm: Featuring Tom from @iamphaged

Posted by Applied Biological Materials (abm) on Dec 21, 2020

We recognize science can seem difficult to young scientists, and we hope to raise awareness about people who make it fun and accessible to broader audiences through social media, #SciComm!


This week, we're introducing Tom from @iamphaged! Tom is a PhD student researching microbiology/phage-host interactions. His instagram blog is full of tidbits about what it's like to work with bacteriophages and his experiences as a graduate student.

We interviewed him to learn more about how he handles the various challenges of grad school and his thoughts on science communcation.

iamphaged Portrait

Thanks, Tom, for participating in this interview! Tell us a bit about yourself and what first sparked your interest in science? How did you end up studying bacteriophages?

The earliest memory concerning science is probably the microscope 🔬 for children my parents bought me when I was in elementary school. It came with prepared slides showing for example a drop of blood and the wing of a fly 🦟. I tried water samples, too, and soil. But for a long time during school I was more focused on sports, economics and politics. That changed in the last years of high school where I really enjoyed biology. In retrospective, I already met the viruses of bacteria during school while learning about the discovery that DNA 🧬 and not protein is the genetic material. But more consciously bacteriophages crossed my way during a general science bachelor’s degree I later quit. After changing to a more specific biology program I concentrated more on phages and implemented a small phage-related project in an internship at a company working with these viruses. From that on I used to work with bacteriophages on every possible occasion.

The virome is the most diverse/dynamic part of the human microbiome – with bacteriophages being a big chunk of that. What is one cool thing about bacteriophages that few people (and scientists) know about? Why do you love working with bacteriophages?

It is estimated that there are more than 1031 phage particles in the biosphere outnumbering their bacterial hosts by at least a tenfold. With that huge number comes enormous diversity. Phage research combines the best parts of bacteriology and virology with a wide range of fundamental to applied aspects.

For me, it is just the perfect mix and there is so much yet to explore and discover in this field. 🤓

Tell us a bit about the current research question you are exploring and why you think it’s an important question to pursue! What are you excited about? What are you nervous about?

For my PhD I just started to work with Streptomyces specific bacteriophages. We want to investigate the phage-host interactions in these filamentous bacteria. Studying phages has ever since their discovery in 1915/17 had a huge impact on our biological knowledge and the techniques we use today. I think the potential to discover a new biological phenomenon or to lay the foundation for an important application in the future really excites me. But in the end, it is hard work and maybe it won’t have a great impact.

But that’s science, we never really know how things will turn out eventually. That is both exciting and frightening.

iamphaged Portrait

Why did you decide to start @iamphaged? What are your thoughts on the importance of science communication, especially given the appearance of anti-science movements such as climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers?

In the beginning I just had a few photos I thought would be cool to share. 😎 That’s when I created my Instagram page. And while looking for other science content, I found so many enthusiastic people sharing their stories, their motivation and setbacks. I see a need for good science communication. Especially concerning things like climate change and vaccines, as you mentioned.

But in the light of the current situations with the SARS-CoV2 pandemic and racism as well, communicating not only the results but also how scientific work is done and influenced or even biased is more important than ever.

For me, I think I am just a guy trying to find his way in science who is sharing a picture now and then accompanied by some facts about this narrow field of phage research. But there are some awesome communicators out there explaining lots of different topics for the public and the experts which I really enjoy reading and listening to. 👍

In one of your posts from last year, you talked about how you had a bad week of failed experiments where you were unable to observe phage attachment to bacterial cells (the first step in the infection cycle). 😣 Eventually, you got the positive results you wanted! Failed experiments are a common occurrence when you’re exploring new territory in science – how do you cope with momentary failures? How do you motivate yourself to keep at it and get the breakthrough?

Well, I think nearly all my experiments failed at some point on the way. And eventually, many of them yielded negative results. But not all negative results are failures. And you can learn a lot from mistakes. 🧐

One of my lecturers during bachelors told us, that the key to success in science is to delay the reward. If you can go through some hard times, keep improving your techniques and learning from the results, no matter how bad they might be, you will make it. You have to stay open for new ideas and for accepting that this is not easy but what you are trying to do is entirely new and could change what we thought is true. And sometimes you just have to do something else and start fresh another day.

Although there are scientists all around the world, English is still the dominant language people use to share their findings with the largest audience. In some of your earlier posts, you mention that English is not your first language and since there are so many international scientists around the world, your challenge is one many share. Tell us a little about some of the struggles you faced and how you overcame them! 💪

Interestingly, when you dive deep into the literature and look for some more historical articles, you can find many in French and German. At least that is true for my searches.

But nowadays, yes, English is the language of science. And I think that’s good. Cooperation and communicating results need a shared language.

But understanding complicated protocols and scientific input can already be hard in your mother tongue. Often starting to speak and understand English was uncomfortable and sometimes frustrating or even intimidating. One important thing to remember when talking English, or any other foreign language, is to just do it. Practice makes perfect and on the other side, you don’t have to be perfect at all. Most of the people will understand you even though you make mistakes. But still, I have to remind myself of that quite often, too. We are all in this together and you will get used to it after a few days of chatting with your lab mates.

You have worked in many different lab environments throughout your career, with many mentors, supervisors and lab mates. In many of your posts, you talk about how you had to quickly learn a new protocol (e.g. learning how to work with eukaryotic cells for the first time) and how nerve-wracking it was to have someone standing over your shoulder while you learned a new technique for the first time. 😳 Can you share some tips for adapting to a new lab environment?

New is exciting, new is full of opportunities. But new also most of the times means uncertainty and getting lost. Nobody is expecting you to know everything in the beginning. Ask for help, ask for the way and take yourself some time to find things out – literally, experiment. Don’t be shy and think that you would annoy someone. Everybody was new at some point and had to find their way.

Remember, you are doing this to learn and learning takes time.

iamphaged Portrait

In a similar vein, you made a summary post of your experience interning at the Phage group of the German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures. One thing you mentioned about your experience there was learning “so many different aspects of scientific working and thinking”. Did you have certain expectations about how working in the lab might be like that turned out to be rather inaccurate? What are some of common misconceptions young scientists or non-scientists have about how working as a researcher/scientist is like?

What I, and probably most of us, learned in school and during higher education are the results. It was polished, it was nicely written and presented, the experiments were structured well and the reasons and thoughts behind it were all convincing. But that’s the end product of a long road of twists and turns. There is a lot of organizational effort, planning, discussions and reading involved as well as a huge amount of teamwork and cooperation.

On your instagram page, @iamphaged, you chronicle your entire journey from undergrad to intern to masters and now PhD student. Being a seasoned researcher, now, what do you think are some important general skills and attitude/outlook a newbie should develop in order to succeed as a researcher? Is there a piece of advice you wished you’d received earlier in your journey as a scientist?

With the start of my PhD I think some of the best but also worst moments of being a researcher are still waiting for me.

But I think curiosity, openness and a will to learn are three key traits a researcher should have to start with. Everything else can be trained on the way.

Develop passion for what you do and don’t get too frustrated if things don’t work out as planned. Resilience and trust in yourself will help a lot to achieve your goals. 🌟


What is your favorite bacteriophage and why?

Sorry but I can’t pick only one. Every group has many interesting and surprising properties. But of course, the ones you isolated yourself are somewhat special!

Describe your most stressful and most fun time in the lab!

It’s very stressful thinking you have destroyed, not only an expensive, but also essential device in the lab. 😬 Been there, done that, can’t recommend it. Fun times are always the times you made it work, when you succeed after a period of struggles and hard work.

Working with bacteriophages means working with microorganisms. Do you have a favorite bacteria (and/or bacterial smell 😂)?

I think I will never forget the smell of freshly prepared LB medium. But the smell of forest 🌲 produced by Streptomyces is also very memorable. Bacteria-wise I think E. coli will be my favorite. Boring I know, but it’s the one I learned all the basics of microbiology and genetics from.

Most number of Petri dishes prepared in one go?

Something around 200. 🤯

Describe how a typical day at the lab for you is like!

Well, my days usually start quite early. Between 6 and 7 am, I begin by checking my plates 🔬 from previous experiments and inoculating cultures 🧫 I want to work with. Depending on the results I have, plans for the day may change. While making sense out of my results and planning the day in more detail I have a cup of tea ☕️ and a chat with my lab mates. Most of the times, I try to do wet lab work before noon so I can concentrate on the more bioinformatic, analyzing and literature reading stuff after lunch. But often there are some things in the lab I have to finish or prepare the hour before I leave which can vary between 2 and 5 pm. But honestly, there is no real thing like a typical day. And that’s a big plus in my opinion.

What do you like to do to relax after a long day at the lab?

I am a fan of both science fiction and history 📚. So I would go for some delicious food, a comfortable couch and a good show, documentary, film or (audio-)book.

Who do you admire/look up to in your field? Were there certain individuals who really got you hooked on bacteriophages?

I don’t know if this is a general trait phage people have or if I was just lucky, but all the supervisors, mentors and colleagues I met so far working in this field were just awesome. Every single one of them had a huge impact on me and my scientific work. 🤗

You know you're obsessed with bacteriophages when...

… you think about getting a phage tattoo. 😂

Thank you, Tom, what a great interview! We learned so much about both bacteriophages and science communcation from you and it's awesome that you're sharing this passion for your field in such a creative way with others!.

iamphaged Illustration

Are you a science communcator? Share your #SciComm experiences with us - we'd love to interview you! Reach out to us on our instagram page, @abm_good, to learn how to participate.

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