Samuel Ellis

Cannot believe I won, awesome 2 weeks everyone, thank you!

Favourite Thing: Taking photos of tiny bacteria sticking to human cells with an awesome microscope



Flegg High School (2004-8), Thorpe St Andrew Sixth Form (2008-10), University of East Anglia (2010-14)


11 GCSEs, 4 A-levels, BSc in Biochemistry, MSc in Molecular Medicine

Work History:

Previously worked voluntarily for the British Heart Foundation charity

Current Job:

I am now studying for a PhD as a full-time job.. Eventually I will be a Doctor (of science not medicine!)


The Institute of Food Research, where lots of scientists work on areas linked to food and health

Me and my work

My work involves finding out how some nasty bacteria in food (the kind that gives you diarrhoea!) stick to the inside of your guts and grow. (Click read more to see some science and pictures)

Hi guys, I’m Sam and I grew up in Norfolk. I am now in my first year of a PhD, which will involve 4 years of working full time as a science researcher, at the end of which I have to write a massive report called a thesis (which are often well over 50,000 words!)

My work is on the types of bacteria that can give you food poisoning, in particular E. coli (Escherichia coli is the full name but is a bit of a mouthful). Some of you might have heard of E. coli before as it is often in the news as a food bug, but actually most types of E. coli are completely harmless. In fact, you almost certainly all have lots of friendly E. coli living in your guts right now!

However, some types can be pretty nasty pathogens (= any microbe such as bacteria or viruses that can cause disease), and the group of scientists I work with are interested in identifying what makes these types bad enough to make people ill. The type I work on is known as EAEC, and is especially good at sticking to things. As a result, it can quickly form big clumps of cells (called colonies) on the walls of your gut, should you be unlucky enough to eat any of it.

The image below is one I took recently, and shows shows some EAEC colonies (stained in red) stuck to human gut cells. The blue circles are the nucleus of the human cells containing all our DNA, while the green is a protein called actin which stretches all over the cell. As you can see, the E. coli is much smaller than a human cells!


For an even closer look, you can use electron microscopy. This uses microscopes which instead of using beams of light to look at samples, instead uses beams of electrons. This lets you see images on a much smaller scale. The pictures below were taken by another scientist in my group, and shows some E. coli (they look a bit like stubby sausages) stuck on real samples of human gut donated by patients in hospital! To give a sense of how small this is, the white scale bars are only 2 µm long.. that is 0.0002 cm (around 1/20th the width of a human hair!)


Hopefully my work over the next few years will find out more about what makes my type of E. coli dangerous, such as what special genes it has compared to other bacteria which help it stick and grow inside our guts. And when scientists understand more about how pathogens work, it makes it much easier to find new and better ways to fight them!


My Typical Day

Grow some bacteria, ‘feed’ my flasks of human cells, count some colonies in petri dishes, or maybe take some cool pictures with a microscope. (read more for some photos of my day)

First thing I will do most days is go to the office and check my emails. I have a desk in an office with 5 other students and scientists, so we have plenty of company (and it means you can’t spend too long getting distracted on the internet without someone noticing!).

Of course the most important work as a scientist takes place in the lab. Everyday is very different, but some of it will always be spent doing experiments. My lab bench can be seen in the photo below (I promise it is an organised mess). On that day I was staining some samples of cells, so that I could later look at different parts of them on a microscope.


(feel free to ask what any of the things in this photo are for)

As my research involves potentially dangerous bacteria, a lot of my work is done in safety cabinets like the one below. These useful bits of equipment work by blowing air in a loop around the inside of the cabinet, and then through a filter in the top to keep it clean. In this way, nothing nasty on the inside can drift out (and nothing from the outside air can go in and contaminate your samples either).


I also spend a lot of time on microscopes. The one in this photo is especially useful, as it can look at normal light or fluorescent light from a sample, meaning you can use lots of different ways of staining your samples to highlight particular things. (Also, to get the best images you have to turn off all the lights in that room and sit in the dark.. always makes me sleepy by the end of the day!)


A lot of my work involves looking at the interactions between bacteria and human cells. Some of the scientists in my group use actual samples of gut lining donated by patients in hospitals. However, I use a different approach where I grow certain types of human cells in a flask, then ‘seed’ them so they form a layer for adding bacteria to.

One of these flasks is shown below. It is a little hard to make out, but if you can see how blurry the background looks through the flask, that is because there is a layer of human gut cells that have grown on the plastic!


It is not all work though, we like to do plenty of social stuff. For example, we had a Sci-Fi themed Christmas party.. I went as R2D2


What I'd do with the money

Donate it to a selection of charities and organisations which promote scientific education, either here in the UK or in developing countries (click read more to see some options)

If I win, I think it would be great to invest the money in helping less fortunate students in other parts of the world get access to better science (and general) teaching. I am still trying to decide which charities might be best for this (there are many good options) but some of the ones I am looking at include:

  • TASTE (The African Science Truck Experience) – These guys work to bring practical science classes to students in rural Uganda, including using a mobile science lab to tour schools, as well as training teachers. They are currently fundraising to send their lab on another trip, so would be very grateful for a donation. (They also have a good history with this competition, having received donations from previous I’m A Scientist! winners)
  • Africa Educational Trust – This charity funds all sorts of education programs such as mobile libraries, mentors and improving curriculum. They focus on regions affected by conflict and poverty, mainly in Somalia, South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda.
  • Read International – Set up by Nottingham University students 10 years ago, this charity has now helped create 56 new libraries in secondary schools around Tanzania, improving the education of tens of thousands of students so far!
  • The Wulugu Project – Set up 20 years ago by a Chemistry teacher from Norfolk (my home county!), this charity has built or renovated 40 schools in Northern Ghana, and improved the education of approximately 200,000 children.


I would love to get your opinions on these charities, or any others you can find!

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Always asking questions

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Mumford & Sons are good

What's your favourite food?

Anything with cheese on

What is the most fun thing you've done?

I once climbed Mount Snowdon in Wales, and got very lucky as it was sunny at the top!

What did you want to be after you left school?

I thought about trying to become a medical doctor originally

Were you ever in trouble at school?

I used to get bored if I finished all the questions early and start chatting to my friends, it must have annoyed the teachers!

What was your favourite subject at school?

I was best at Science and Maths, but PE was probably the most fun.

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

Visited schools to talk about my own research, and impressed by how good (and tricky) some of the students’ questions were

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

I had some teachers who loved hands-on experiments. Once they got all the internal organs from a pig from a butchers so we could see how they all connected!

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

Probably working in a big museum or library

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

To be better at multi-tasking, less easily distracted.. and longer weekends!

Tell us a joke.

I can’t stop reading this book about anti-gravity.. it’s really hard to put down

Other stuff

Work photos:

My lab bench:


This cool bit of equipment is full of liquid nitrogen at -196 °C.. that’s rather cold! We use it to freeze cells so they can be kept a very long time without dying, so in the future they can be defrosted and start growing again.


Of course we have a cuddly E.coli in our office! Sadly real bacteria don’t wear hats ha.


Finally, I took a lab selfie for you guys! 🙂


Lots more photos of my science and workspaces included in the ‘read more’ parts of the first questions at the top of this page!