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A jolly good fellow

Memorial's Rothermere scholar researching biology of bacteria at Cambridge

By Kelly Foss

Liam Gregory has been named Memorial’s latest Rothermere Fellow.

It is one of the university’s most lucrative and prestigious awards.

Mr. Gregory, who is originally from St. John’s, graduated with a B.Sc.(Hons.), majoring in biochemistry, from Memorial in 2019. He completed a master’s degree at the University of British Columbia in 2021.

Currently, he is enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Cambridge, which he began in fall 2022, and conducts research at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

How bacteria works

“My research area is the structural and molecular biology of bacteria,” he said. “I sometimes refer to it as microbial physiology. It’s the molecular basis of how bacteria work and conduct their life cycles.

“It’s a lot like studying human physiology, like the digestive system or the brain, except bacteria are so much simpler and the life cycle is so much shorter,” he continued. “This means we can really get down into the molecular details of different processes, how they interact with each other and how they are influenced by the environment, which is hard to do with so many more moving parts in humans.”

A man on a step ladder in front of a piece of lab equipment. He is joined by two women lab mates.
Liam Gregory with fellow lab mates Dr. Lisa Käshammer (left) and Dr. Fusinita van den Ent (right). He is operating the Laboratory of Molecular Biology’s 120-litre fermenter, which is used to cultivate large volumes of bacteria from which the proteins they study are extracted.
Photo: Submitted

Mr. Gregory says the relative simplicity of bacteria means researchers have tighter control over their experiments and can get to the bottom of how things work.

That’s not to say bacteria aren’t complex, he says, but that there’s so much more that humans “aren’t even close” to knowing.

“But what we garner from studying simple life forms can suggest a lot about the more complex ones and that’s without even considering the importance of understanding bacteria as our adversaries in health science.”

Meaningful mentorship

While at Memorial, Dr. Valerie Booth supervised Mr. Gregory.

He worked in her lab for two summers through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Undergraduate Student Research Award (NSERC USRA) program.

“Something great about doing honours research, and the USRA program, at Memorial, is that there’s a tradition of including the undergraduate students in every aspect of the academic space. I presented in group meetings, journal clubs, attended lectures and meetings with faculty, and had my share of lab chores in addition to my research project,” he said.

Mr. Gregory says that experience, along with Dr. Booth’s mentorship, both at the time and since, are the most important factors in his getting to where he is today.

Ready for a change

After studying for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Canada, Mr. Gregory says he was ready for a change.

Liam Gregory holds onto a mountain bike on a trail with forest and mountains in the background on a sunny day.
Liam Gregory cycling in Jasper National Park, Alta.
Photo: Submitted

Taking a cue from a few UBC lab mates from the U.K., he looked into doing his doctoral degree in that country.

Molecular biology is “absolutely huge” there, and although Oxford and Cambridge are large draws, he says there are a number of U.K. institutions that punch above their weight when it comes to research.

“I got interested in the Rothermere Fellowship as a route to getting involved with that scene and it was pretty exciting to find out I would be supported,” he added. “Getting to come to the Laboratory of Molecular Biology specifically has been an especially important opportunity. The U.K. government commits stable operation funding for our research, which means group leaders don’t have to spend as much time stressing over grant applications and we can take more risks investing in questions that might take a while to answer.”

Bottom-up, top-down

At the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Mr. Gregory is part of Prof. Jan Löwe’s group, which primarily studies bacterial cell division and DNA handling machinery.

He says they are focusing on piecing together the molecular details of how bacteria make their cell walls, which are the most important target for the development of new antibiotics.

“There’s a huge number of proteins involved and we look at the process from a lot of different angles,” he said. “We study the structures of the individual proteins involved, trying to understand the process from the bottom-up; we also study intact and pieces of bacteria and their cell walls to see what’s going on from the top-down.”

Mr. Gregory is trying to connect the knowledge his group has accumulated from those two approaches by bringing the individual proteins together with materials they think they might need to make a cell wall.

“Hopefully my research will help to . . . create new opportunities for intelligent drug discovery.” — Liam Gregory

To observe how they interact and what they can make, he uses cryoelectron microscopy, which allows him to see the protein molecules up close.

“Hopefully my research will help to bridge that gap between the molecular and the cellular knowledge and, of course, create new opportunities for intelligent drug discovery.”

As to his future plans, Mr. Gregory says while he expects to be done with formal academic education after his doctoral degree, he doesn’t ever want to stop learning.

“It’s always a balance figuring out how far to be looking ahead and whether it’s the right time to commit to pursuing your next goal,” he said. “You want to be paying attention to what’s in front of you and be open to unexpected opportunities, but at the same time, you don’t want to be unprepared for things coming later. I don’t usually think too far ahead.”

Rothermere Fellowship

Established by Memorial University’s first chancellor, Lord Rothermere, the generous trust will fund the full cost of Mr. Gregory’s studies in the U.K., including airfare and a yearly stipend.

The annual award is currently valued at nearly £22,000 per year, plus tuition fees and is given to an exceptional scholar who completed a first degree at Memorial.


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