Can you tell us about how you got started in Public Health Microbiology?

My first interest came as a young girl of about 11 or 12 when I took out a school library book on tropical diseases  which had some dramatic illustrations on waterborne parasites which grabbed my interest and I was hooked. I first started working on water as a junior medical laboratory technician in Preston Public Health Laboratory where my first placement was in the milks and water lab. Later, I swabbed bath drains in hospital wards for a small project looking for Pseudomonas aeruginosa. This was almost 50 years ago and we don’t seem to have come very far since then!  

After I had a break for children. I studied for my first degree. I was very lucky and won an SERC personal award for my PhD, which allowed me to submit my own thesis proposal and link my two greatest areas of interest, Clinical and Water Microbiology to produce my thesis, which involved investigating Legionella growth in biofilms and protozoa. I loved this research and the people I met and worked with and wish it could have carried onIt was tough as I had two small children, but had amazing support from colleagues at the University of Central Lancashire, PHLS Preston and the Centre for Applied Microbiology Research (CAMR) at Porton Down. I also couldn't have done it without my family and friends.

I then worked on a project looking at the risk of infection from Salmonella and Campylobacter in sand on bathing beaches, which had some amusing incidents including one which my boss dined on for years. As I collected sand from Blackpool beach I tentatively put a foot in a puddle to check it wasn’t too deep. As I stepped off the steps and was satisfied it was okay, my other foot followed to drop down into waist-high freezing cold water!! I still collected my samples but had to go back to the lab with pockets and everything else wet through.  

I then worked at the PHLS Water and Environmental Research Lab at Queens Medical Centre in Nottingham and from there was eventually promoted to Director of the Health Protection Agency London, the Food, Water and Environmental Microbiology Laboratory in London (now PHE) and a member of the national water outbreak investigation team. In 2010, with my husband Dr John V Lee, we set up Leegionella Ltd, which provides wholly independent public health water microbiology consultancy, advisory services, legal support and training. We primarily working with the healthcare, travel, commercial and legal sectors nationally and internationally.

You’re chairing RSPH’s first virtual conference! Can you tell us a bit about what your conference session will cover?

This conference will be our first virtual conference in a series of Water Safety in Healthcare conferences. We have speakers who are leaders in their field and with practical experience in their sector. Attendees will learn about new thoughts on the ongoing challenges to keeping water safe, about minimising the risks associated with poor water system design, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and a really useful debate on the pros and cons of  thermostatic mixing valves. There will also be updates on the newly developed British Standard for developing and implementing water safety plans and carrying out risk assessments for Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

What are you looking forward to from RSPH’s first digital conference?

The digital forum is exciting; one of the main reasons we have worked really hard to produce good quality webinars is to be able to disseminate training especially for those who would find it hard to gain because of travel and/or cultural difficulties. The educational grant from PALL Medical which supports the water webinar programme has been key to being able to provide our water webinar series free of charge. Running a virtual conference gives a lot more people the chance to participate at a lower cost, so hopefully we will see more attendees from outside the UK.

Our conference on the 21 April is supported by some great companies and those who join us will be able to listen to a range of multidisciplinary speakers with practical experience, including regulators; medical microbiologist, engineers and scientists. The question and answer sessions will give an opportunity to listen to current thinking and get more than one opinion on topics such as the use of Thermostatic mixing valves and who should be involved in carrying out risk assessments for Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

Where can people find out more about your work and booking conference tickets?

You can buy tickets for our conference, Keeping Healthcare Water Safe - 2021 Challenges on the RSPH website and find out more about my work at the Leegionella Ltd website.