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A Day in the Life of Dr Michelle Mitchener, Senior Postdoctoral Associate at SMART AMR

Meet Dr Michelle Mitchener, a Senior Postdoctoral Associate at the Antimicrobial Resistance Interdisciplinary Research Group (AMR IRG) in SMART. Michelle's research explores the complexities of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), focusing on the bacterium Enterococcus faecalis (E. faecalis), a leading cause of hospital-acquired infections. 


Together with her colleagues, Michelle investigates the role of tRNA modifications in protein translation, specifically examining their impact on biofilm formation—a critical aspect of E. faecalis's ability to cause harm. By unravelling these mechanisms, Michelle aims to uncover new insights into combating AMR, thereby contributing to the ongoing battle against infectious diseases.

Balancing work and personal life can be challenging. What are your current hobbies or guilty pleasures to relax and recharge?


In the mornings, my husband and I read the Bible over breakfast, grounding ourselves for the day. In the evenings, I exercise at the fitness centre, boosting my physical and mental health before heading home. I also find joy in singing during church choir practices on Sunday afternoons, which uplifts my spirit and mood.


Can you share with us something that would surprise us or that you think is unique about you?


My husband and I love granola for breakfast but refuse to pay high prices for small packages. So, we make our own honey nut granola in bulk using ingredients bought in bulk each week. We joke that if our careers in science ever hit a dead end, we could try our hand at being small-batch granola entrepreneurs!


What do you do at SMART AMR?


I am a senior postdoctoral associate in the SMART Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) interdisciplinary research group. My current focus is on E. faecalis, a bacterium that is a leading cause of hospital-acquired infections. One challenge in treating this pathogen lies in its ability to form biofilms—three-dimensional, surface-associated clusters of microbial cells encased in an extracellular matrix. In collaboration with colleagues in Prof. Kimberly A. Kline’s lab, we are investigating the role of tRNA modifications in the synthesis of proteins essential for biofilm formation. Our long-term goal is to uncover the RNA biology underlying these processes and identify potential therapeutic targets. We are deeply committed to this mission, as it holds the key to combating infections that pose a significant threat to public health.


How did you first become interested in your field of work, and what motivated you to pursue it as a career?


In high school, I was inspired by a passionate chemistry teacher, leading me to pursue a major in chemistry and aspire to become a professor. During my undergraduate years, I double-majored in molecular and cellular biology and became fascinated by the chemistry of living things and disease mechanisms. Since graduate school, I’ve been a chemical biologist pursuing diverse research interests focused on understanding disease-related biological processes from a bioanalytical chemistry standpoint. This passion for understanding and making a difference in the field of AMR continues to drive me in my work every day.


Could you share a highlight of working at SMART AMR?


I have really enjoyed the collaborative nature of SMART AMR, particularly within my project. Locally, regular visits to Nanyang Technological University (NTU) facilitated fruitful collaboration with colleagues in Prof. Kimberly Kline’s lab who are experts in E. faecalis biology, and at A*STAR IMCB, I learned proteomics techniques from members of Prof. Radoslaw Sobota’s lab. Internationally, I have worked with Prof. Tom Begley’s lab at the University at Albany to understand E. faecalis codon usage and with fellow lab members at MIT to quantify tRNA levels during bacterial biofilm formation. Collectively, these collaborations have broadened my scientific skills and offered profound insights into E. faecalis biofilm formation that would never have been possible from a single group alone.

How does your work benefit the society/research communities?


E. faecalis, the pathogen my colleagues and I study, is associated with up to 33% of catheter-associated urinary tract infections, 70% of wound infections, and 15% of infectious endocarditis cases. Its ability to form biofilms makes it more resistant to antimicrobials and immune responses. Given the rise in Enterococci (bacteria belonging to the Enterococcus genus) infections resistant to commonly prescribed antibiotics, new strategies to limit infection are urgently needed. Through our work to better understand how E. faecalis forms biofilms, we aim to develop targeted interventions against these infections and mitigate AMR.

What is the biggest motivation that keeps you going at work now, especially during hard and challenging times?


My faith strengthens me through both professional and personal challenges, providing hope and motivation. 


How do you stay inspired? 


My Ph.D. advisor once said, “Only 10% of your ideas are good ideas, and only 10% of those will work.” This keeps me inspired and focused on generating new ideas while staying realistic about their success.


What advice would you give to someone aspiring to enter a similar role or field of work?


Scientific research offers endless opportunities for innovation and exploration, making it a natural fit for those with analytical minds and a curiosity about the world. However, diving into graduate studies and post-Ph.D training should be approached with caution, only if your career goals necessitate it. This journey can be challenging, marked by inevitable setbacks and failures. Yet it also provides moments of discovery and personal growth, underscoring the importance of having a clear vision for the future.

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