Dr Bryan Wee on the study of the genomes of bacterial pathogens

He talks about studying the genomes of bacterial pathogens to learn how bacteria spread and how they cause disease in humans and animals, the importance of a good experimental design and scientific rigor to ensure optimal use of the ever-increasing amount of data, and how science to him is like solving puzzles every morning.

Bryan grew up in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. He studied and worked in Malaysia and Australia before moving to Edinburgh. Bryan currently works as a Core Scientist at the Roslin Institute with Chancellor's Fellow Dr. Adrian Muwonge in the Digital One Health Laboratory. He is currently working on ways to improve how samples and contextual data are collected to better understand how antibiotic resistance arises in humans, animals, and the environment.


Could you briefly summarise your work?

I work in the field of microbial genomics, where I study the genomes of many different bacterial pathogens to understand where they come from, how they spread, and how they cause disease in humans and animals. Bacteria are a diverse group of microorganisms that we still have so much to learn about. Bacterial genomes contain the coded instructions for almost everything bacteria are capable of, and my job is to decipher and understand these instructions.

Why is your research important? How is it relevant to people's lives?

Although you are most likely to hear about viral pathogens in the news these days, bacteria are still the cause of many diseases that plague humanity. TB Tuberculosis, caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, kills more than a million people around the world every year. Pneumonia, which can be caused by various types of bacteria, is one of the leading causes of death in young children and people over 70. Meningitis, which is also caused by various bacteria, occurs when the brain or spinal cord becomes infected. Finally, you may have heard of cholera outbreaks, which affect millions of people and are caused by contamination of drinking water with the bacterium Vibrio cholera. These bacterial pathogens are constantly being studied to understand how they spread and to develop new treatments and vaccines against them.

What are the major challenges in your field?

About two decades ago, there were breakthrough developments in sequencing technology that allowed us to sequence DNA at a much cheaper price than ever before. This led to an exponential increase in genomic sequencing data generated. The increasing amounts of data can be a double-edged sword as we have to be more careful about how we design our experiments so that we are not overwhelmed by the amount of data and are able to unleash its full potential.

What inspired you to be a scientist?

Observing animals and plants around while growing up gave me a love for animals and the natural world. I was also fortunate to have parents who gave me access to books and the internet. I also remember getting a plastic toy microscope when I was young which gave me my first (blurry) glimpse of microorganisms in pond water.


What do you like best about your job? What do you like the least?

I love how research is about solving puzzles. The research part of my job means that I have a new puzzle to solve every day!

The process of publishing research is the part I like least, especially having to deal with that grant/journal reviewer who rips apart your hard work and has nothing constructive to say... please don’t be Reviewer 2. 

If you could have tea with another scientist (alive or dead), who would it be? What would you talk about?

Alfred Russel Wallace – I would ask him about his travels across South East Asia and how he handled being “scooped” by his contemporary, Darwin.

What is the most unusual thing you have done as a scientist?

Moved to Edinburgh, Scotland from Brisbane, Australia one week after getting married! 10,000 miles away from my very understanding partner, our friends, familyand really nice and warm beaches. Many people move around the world for work these days so I guess it really isn’t that unusual anymore.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?

A cook. I can still experiment with new recipes to solve a very important problem (my hunger).


Do you have any advice for people who want to go into this field of research or start a career as a scientist?

So far in my career I have learned about the value of persevering when faced with what initially looks like an insurmountable challenge. Every journey begins with a small step and everyone’s journey is different so don’t worry too much about the destination and enjoy the journey!

What do you think are the major challenges facing humanity? How can science help?

Just like the abundance of genomic data, humanity is faced with an abundance of information to sift through on a daily basis. From the approaches we use in science to process and make sense of large amounts of data, we can also learn something about how we process the everyday data that surrounds us. This might include newer methods like machine learning and artificial intelligence, or even some of the time-proven statistical methods.

Related Links

Bryan Wee profile

Adrian Muwonge profile

The Digital One Health Lab

The Roslin Institute