Interview with Professor James Prosser, newly elected Fellow of the Royal Society

27-05-2016 Carianne Buurmeijer

Interview by Lindsay Uittenbogaard

Prosser photograph
Professor James Prosser, Chair in Environmental Microbiology at the University of Aberdeen BSc, PhD, OBE, FRS, FRSE, FRSB, FAAM

FEMS’ Board Member and Publications Manager Jim Prosser is one of 50 researchers that have been elected as Fellows of the Royal Society – a Fellowship of many of the world’s most eminent scientists and the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence.

The Royal Society was formed in 1660 and its members have included Isaac Newton, Erasmus Darwin, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Stephen Hawking, and Richard Dawkins. International members have included Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein.

Professor Prosser has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the diversity and ecosystem function of micro-organisms in natural environments. A major focus of his research is the ecology of soil ammonia oxidising bacteria and archaea, which significantly reduce the efficiency of nitrogen fertilisers and generate greenhouse gases. (Source: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/news/9127/ )

Q: How did you feel when you discovered that you had been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society?
I was absolutely delighted and felt considerable gratitude to the people I’ve worked with, as members of my research group, and to those with whom I’ve collaborated. This award reflects their enormous contributions to microbial ecology research.

Q: How did you celebrate?
Actually I had a gin and tonic with my wife, I’ll be taking the lab out to dinner in a couple of weeks and no doubt many other celebrations will take place.

Q: What made you decide on a career in microbiology to start with?
I studied biology at school and the least covered topic was microbiology. We were taught virtually nothing about microorganisms – they just weren’t in the syllabus, which focussed only on plants and animals.  I began to read about microorganisms and became interested in microbiology because it was so different, so new and so exciting.

Q: What is your goal as a microbiologist?
Of course, I want to find answers to research questions and I want my students to be successful, but I have not really had personal goals. I have let the science lead me: I’m more interested in the research than how it might benefit myself and, as a result, every success has been a positive surprise.

Q: What would you say is the greatest challenge facing microbiologists today?
As a microbial ecologist, I’d say the biggest challenge – and opportunity – is to discover the mechanisms that determine the composition, diversity and activity of microbial communities in natural environments. We currently lack adequate theories and concepts to address these challenges.

Q: What would you say to aspiring microbiologists?
It’s important to learn from history and one of the things to learn is that there’s always something new to discover. When I did my degree, they had discovered the structure of DNA and had recently cracked the genetic code.  It would have been easy to think the big questions had been answered, but there is still much we do not know or understand and still major discoveries to be made.  For example, research on nitrification has been revolutionised every 5 – 6 years by completely unexpected and exciting discoveries.

Brief biography of Jim Prosser
Jim, originally from Liverpool, completed a degree in Microbiology at Queen Elizabeth College, University of London, before moving to the University of Liverpool for his PhD and NERC Postdoctoral Fellowship. He was then appointed to a Lectureship in Microbiology at the University of Aberdeen, where he now holds a Personal Chair in Environmental Microbiology.

Jim’s research focuses on the diversity and ecosystem function of microbial communities and on the use of molecular techniques to characterise natural communities of microorganisms in soil and aquatic environments. This research has uncovered novel microbial groups involved in biogeochemical cycling processes, in particular nitrification, which plays a central in the global nitrogen cycle.

Jim is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology, Francis Clark Distinguished Lecturer in Soil Biology 2007 and a Director of NCIMB Ltd., a microbiological services spin-out company from the University of Aberdeen. He was appointed FEMS Publications Manager in 2011, following periods as Editor and Chief Editor of FEMS Microbiology Ecology.  In 2013 he was awarded an OBE by Queen Elizabeth II.

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