Rebecca Handley

Ahh! So many evictions!

Favourite Thing: Putting things under the microscope!



1998-2003 Gravesend Grammar School for Girls; 2003-2005 North West Kent College


BSc in Microbiology, University of East Anglia

Work History:

Where haven’t I worked? Gamestation, Virgin, a Wetherspoons even Primark for a bit! Science wise I’ve worked on a few different research topics, one project was identifying a type of fungi that eats worms, another was working on bacteria that produce antibiotics.


The Institute of Food Research

Current Job:


Me and my work

I research a bacteria called Campylobacter that causes food poisoning, I’m trying to understand how it survives on our food.



I work at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, and my lab is part of a group of people that work on ‘Bacterial foodborne pathogens’ – bacteria that cause infections that are spread by food and food-related items. 


The bacteria I work on is called Campylobacter (Kam-pie-low-back-ter), or just Campy for short. It comes from chickens and is spread by eating infected foods. Many people haven’t heard of Campylobacter, but it is the most common cause of food poisoning, much more common than E. coli or Salmonella, chances are all of you have been ill with Campy. All age groups are affected by Campy food poisoning, especially the young as they tend to eat fast food or microwave food that isnt cooked properly.


Heres a microscope image of one Campy bacteria. Its curvy and has tails at the top and bottom, all this helps it swim through your intestines – making it very good at causing infections.



My job is to try to find out how the bacteria actually survives on our food. The bacteria is naturally found living in the intestines of chickens, which is a very different environment than on our food. In the chicken the bacteria is warm and there is very little air, but on our food there is lots of air and the bacteria might be cold if kept in a fridge or very hot if its in the oven.  If we can understand how it survives on our food and what it needs to survive, we can design new techniques to the food packaging process that will reduce the number of food products infected by the bacteria. At the moment 1 in 3 store bought chickens are infected with Campy. A big problem with Campy is it can go on to infect other things, such as salad leaves, water and other meats. 


The symptoms of a Campylobacter infection are very similar to E. coli or Salmonella – stomach cramps, diarrhoea etc. which is why they are often confused. The symptoms last 3-5 days and usually stop on their own, without needing medicine.  BUT there is another problem with Campy, which is part of the reason so much money goes into researching it- it can cause other problems such as Guillian-Barre Syndrome (GBS), a type of paralysis that can happen up to 1 year after you have had  food poisoning from Campy. It happens when your immune system makes a mistake and instead of attacking the bacteria it attacks your own nervous system. Also it is far from rare, about 1 in 1000 people who have an infection with Campy then go on to develop GBS and there are up to 20 million cases of Campy food poisoning in Europe each year!

My Typical Day

Lots of running around to the lab to the office then back to the lab…


My day starts very early, around 7am. I start in the office planning my day before I head to the lab. In the lab we grow our bacteria in special cabinets, these cabinets are made to have an environment that the bacteria will grow quickly in – so we can get more work done! But even still the bacteria (Campylobacter) takes 2 days to grow. In the picture above you can see the cabinets, we get into the cabinets using special air-tight sleeves – this is to make sure no air gets into the cabinet. 

After checking my bacteria has grown I usually look at some under the microscope – this is to make sure it is alive and that it is the right bacteria- as often other bacteria might grow too by accident, what we call ‘contamination’. Once it is all checked we store our bacteria in a freezer, our freezer is at -80 degrees C (just to compare your freezer at home is -20). Above is a picture of me in the freezer and my colleague using the microscope.

After a mornings work I have lunch with other people I work with in our staff canteen, and then it’s either back to the lab or to a presentation- we often have other scientists visit our institute and talk about their work. These are usually a good chance to meet other scientists, learn about something new and get some free coffee and cake! 

In the afternoons I may do an experiment- I do lots of different kinds of experiments, such as;  monitoring how fast the bacteria grows at different temperatures and conditions. I also do a lot of genetic work or GM (genetically modifying) work. This means I change the bacterias DNA usually by removing parts of its DNA and seeing what happens, this is how we find out what things the DNA does.


What I'd do with the money

I’d like to help students by showing them how they can work or get involved in science.

I would like to help show people how they can get involved in science, whether it is for a career or just for fun. I’d do this by having outreach events and fun days showing people different aspects of what I do and what they can do too. I’d like to make a video of young scientists telling people how they got to the job they are in now, and how easy and how fun it is! 

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Small, geeky, focussed.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

The Wombats, I saw them play at UEA last month and have had their album on repeat ever since.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Taken a month off work and had one long holiday in South Australia

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

I would wish…that I could see into the future, that I could win the lottery and then I’d wish for 3 more wishes ;)

What did you want to be after you left school?

A Vet or a Doctor, but I realised I’m too squeemish.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Occasionally, I once got a detention for not taking a previous detention seriously. They made me write an essay, explaining to an alien how to make a full English breakfast.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Presented my work in Germany at an international conference about the Hamburg synchrotron.

Tell us a joke.

‘A man enters a local paper’s pun contest. He sent in ten different puns, in the hope that at least one of the puns would win the competition. Unfortunately, no pun in ten did.’