UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering


Spotlight on Dr Lena Ciric

20 January 2020

Dr Lena Ciric is an environmental microbiologist in UCL Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering (CEGE).

Lena Ciric

Lena's research expertise lies in the application of molecular biology techniques to the profiling of microbial communities in various environments ranging from groundwater to the human mouth.

In recent years, her research has focused on the indoor environment and the microbes that lurk within hospitals and on high-touch surfaces in public spaces. Within this context, she studies bacterial antibiotic resistance mechanisms and their modes of transfer between organisms. She is also interested in the discovery of new antimicrobial strategies that either kill dangerous microorganisms or best stop their growth. Through this, she directs UCL’s Healthy Infrastructure Research Group which studies how we can make our environment healthier and reduce the spread of infections.

Lena’s currently exploring these issues on an EPSRC Impact Acceleration secondment at Great Ormond Street Hospital, demonstrating the imperativeness of close clinician-engineer collaboration in tackling pressing healthcare challenges.

Lena’s passionate about communicating science to the public and undertook a British Science Association Media Fellowship through UCL Engineering last year, spending July on secondment to the BBC Science Radio Unit. She’s particularly interested in ways we can make communication with the public more of a two-way conversation. In our interview, she tells us her thoughts on this, more about the need for her research and why she thinks microbes might have a “marketing problem”.

What would you like the public to know about your research?

I would love the public to be more aware about microbes generally. I think there tends to be a negative connotation about all microbes and germs – even down to the words we use and their cartoon depiction as little monsters in popular culture. But the great majority of microbes out there aren’t harmful to us and have been evolving alongside us for centuries. Most people don’t know we have as many of them in our body as we do our own cells – so humans are almost half microbe!

Of course, we need to keep our surfaces clean and be careful about things like food preparation, but I’d also like people to see microbes with a broader complexity. I think we could start engaging with these ideas at a very young age, for instance my five year-old son is very open to talking about the different microbes on the things we touch and even in things like faeces as he hasn’t developed the same taboos that adults have.

So, it seems as if microbes have a communications problem of sorts?

Absolutely! There tends to be a broad-brush approach to understanding them which strips them and the challenges around them of any nuance. This is why it’s so important for us as scientists to communicate better with the public so that we can increase understanding and awareness.  

What is it about communicating with the public that is so important to you?

I believe that it’s part of our job to try to communicate effectively about our science. Crucially, we need to do more to reach out beyond those who are already engaged. Sometimes when we do public engagement activities it can feel like preaching to the converted! The challenge is creating meaningful, two-way conversations with a broader audience. Managing this is incredibly impactful.

What advice would you give to people who want to do this? Particularly to researchers who might not have much communications experience.

I think a good start is for scientists to understand better what makes a good story. This does not mean being creative with the truth, but it does mean thinking creatively about how we can show our research’s importance and interest to society. For instance, reeling off species names of different bacteria that live in your gut might be scientifically accurate, but is unlikely to persuade someone to listen to the importance of those bacteria’s roles.

Sometimes we need to step back from the important minutia of our daily research, like mining data and making graphs, to invest some time in understanding the big picture narrative of our research and how to convey this story. I love the daily details of doing my research, but it’s been incredibly useful and liberating to look at the broader context too; why am I doing my research? Why is it important to the me? Why is it important to the world? Once you’re clear with yourself on those big things, then communicating with the public becomes a lot easier.

And how would you go about answering those questions then, what is the importance and the impact of the research you are doing?

I’ve always been very interested in applied research and being driven by questions that will be of immediate value to society. A lot of what I’m working on now centres around what microorganisms are present in the built environment around us, such as our offices, our schools and our hospitals. Hospitals are particularly interesting as, with plenty of unwell people inside, it’s clearly incredibly important to try to minimise the spread of infections. 

One of the primary methods for infection control is cleaning, but there’s actually been very little evidence-based research on how best to clean and on how cleaning is done in the complexity of the real world, rather than in the laboratory conditions that most cleaning products are tested in. I’ve just begun a secondment at Great Ormond Street Hospital that will allow us to translate some of the research we have done into materials that hospital staff can use. Using this we hope to provide some training for hospital staff on the most effective methodology and practices of cleaning. I’ll also be looking at how the different staff groups, like the clinicians, cleaners and estates professionals, work together to improve infection control and how these processes could be strengthened. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes!

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