Katherine R. Duncan

Tell us about yourself

Photo of sailboats on the water
Photo courtesy of Katherine R. Duncan

I am Scottish, I was born on the East coast in a city called Aberdeen. When I was 21 I lived in Florida for 5 months doing some Masters research on coral. After a few more years back in the UK, I moved to Prince Edward Island, Canada for my PhD. I loved living in Canada and found the snow storms really exciting. In 2012, straight after leaving Canada I lived in San Diego, California where I worked at the world renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography. After 2 years of sunshine, I'm now back in Scotland, working as a researcher at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, which is based in Oban, a small town on the West coast of Scotland.

What is your research about?

There is an increasing need for new medical therapies and also new antibiotics to circumvent antibiotic resistance. I discover new antibiotics and anticancer compounds from the sea. The Oceans provide lots of biodiversity and unexplored habitats. In particular I look for these compounds from marine bacteria living in the sediment (sea floor). The area of research is called Marine Natural Products.

What have you enjoyed the most about your research?

The part of my research I enjoy most is making discoveries. So much of the Oceans and the living things (organisms) inside them are not well studied, and often we can be the first people to look at them for finding new drugs (chemistry) or to study what they are (biology), this makes the research exciting. Every day is different, my job involves molecular biology (genes, genomes, DNA, sequencing), microbiology (culturing, isolation), chemistry (looking at the compounds produced) and bioinformatics (looking at data with computers) sometimes I'm in the lab all day, sometimes I'm at the computer all day, just depends where I'm at with an experiment.

“I love being a marine natural product researcher, it's my dream job”

What have you found most challenging about your research?

Sometimes the reality of working in a molecular or microbiology lab is doing some quite repetitive tasks, such as pouring petri dishes or culturing bacteria, this is often when I listen to music and have a think about designing the next part of an experiment, although less fun, it's all important.

How has your research experience influenced your career path?

I've always followed my love of discovering and marine science, it's influenced my career path by getting my MChem (undergraduate and masters degree) in Chemistry, my PhD in Biomedical Science and my Postdoctoral Fellowship in genomics, bioinformatics, and metabolomics. I always like learning and passing on my knowledge (teaching), therefore I decided to be an academic, this would mean that I'll one day be a a professor, which means I'll always be learning and acquiring knowledge on marine natural products!

How has your research impacted the world?

My area of research is rewarding. Even though it is a long process from initial discovery of these chemicals (compounds) to drugs, at least in a small way, one day it could make a difference to medical science.

What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?

I think the next break through will be using cutting edge technologies (genome sequencing, transcriptomics, metabolomics, phylogeny, sequencing) to inform us on new approaches for discovering new compounds (drugs) from the environment (called bioprospecting).

What motivates you to do research?

From my early childhood of picking leaves up and identifying them and mixing up potions of moisturiser with my sister I realised that I like discovering, asking questions and finding answers, I also like being fairly independent. The marine environment is fascinating, I love being a marine natural product researcher, it's my dream job, if you are doing something that interests you, you'll always be happy with your career.

Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment

I was on holiday (age 18) backpacking around Easter Europe (by myself) when I was on an island off Croatia, I thought "wouldn't it be cool to see if these things (sponges) in the ocean could be used for new medicines?". A month or so later I was back at Aberdeen University (about to start my second year of my undergraduate degree) googled my sponge related question, found out it was called marine natural product and there was a researcher that did just that (Marcel Jaspars). I went to talk to him and changed my degree from Chemistry (instead of Biochemistry) so I could specialize in that area of research.

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