My PhD was inspired by a chance conversation with a student. After many years working in the textile and garment industry, in 2008 I started lecturing in textile technology and fashion product development at Manchester Met. Several years later an undergraduate student made me aware of a video on the internet entitled ‘The Next Black’ , which was a collection of innovations in the apparel industry. One of the speakers was Suzanne Lee, a fashion researcher who was looking at new ways of creating fabrics. She had grown some ‘fabric’ from bacteria in tea and sugar….. and I was hooked.
Fast forward two years and I found myself registered on a PhD degree entitled ‘Bacterial Cellulose as a Technical Textile’. Taking a multidisciplinary approach, working across textiles and microbiology, I started my journey to look at how we could use bacteria commonly used to brew Kombucha tea as a way of creating bacterial cellulose (BC) mats – often referred to in fashion as vegetable leather.
This isn’t anything new; BC has been used in clinical settings as wound treatments and tissue scaffolds for quite some time. However, in textile circles, whilst BC has been explored as an alternative to animal leather, it has largely been used in conceptual pieces and its performance characteristics in this setting are relatively unexplored.
The first part of my research journey was to establish a reproducible method of producing the BC mats. My initial research revealed that BC could be grown in a variety of food wastes (such as discarded beer broth and fruit juices), however, it was black tea and sugar that produced the highest yields of material.
One of the most interesting parts of the work is that the BC mats are produced by living microbes, which means you can take some of the mat you have grown and use it to grow some more! This led to the next stage of the research journey, using PCR techniques to determine the microbial community changes across generations of the BC fabrics. The completion of this work coincided with the beginning of the pandemic…. which was handy because when PCR testing was introduced, I knew exactly what it was! The things you learn on your research journey come in handy at the most random of times!
I have been very lucky to have a fabulous, supportive, supervisory team who have encouraged me to present, publish and engage with the wider community at every opportunity. As a result, I have presented at several conferences, published papers and been awarded grants to grow my public engagement profile.
The last part of my journey (in terms of my PhD) is now to start looking at uses for the BC mats. The first stop was to look at how it performs as a ‘textile’ in the arena of apparel. I’ve conducted an extensive literature review around the use of BC as a textile – and have been shocked to find that although lots of people have considered the use of BC as an alternative, there have been virtually no studies assessing its physical performance. I’ve felt more in my comfort zone during this part of my PhD, as my industrial experience is in textile performance and testing.
There’s been another twist in my journey as I’m no longer a member of staff at Manchester Met but continue as a self-funded research student. I applied for and was awarded funding by the Manchester Met Graduate School to attend the 5th International Symposium on Bacterial Cellulose, where I was accepted to present my testing work. I was a little nervous as there were ‘proper’ scientists there, exploring BC at a molecular level. I felt a bit of a fraud being there to present my textile testing results (classic imposter syndrome!), but what I had discovered during my testing work was the BC has exceptional abrasion properties, so could have potential in high performance protection garments. It was wonderful to firstly be asked questions on my work from such a scientific community but secondly, to have such encouraging comments afterwards (the conference was online) such as ‘great work’ and ‘its so important this type of data is being established’. I suddenly had the feeling that perhaps all the work I have done really is contributing to knowledge!
I feel I am on the home straight with my PhD journey now. I hear many people say what a tortuous journey a PhD is, but I can say 100% that I don’t feel that. I have thoroughly enjoyed my studies, yes there have been times when I’ve been disheartened, but the opportunities and experiences I have had along the way more than make up for it. I am a little sad to be coming to the end of this part of my research career. However, myself and the fabulous academic friends I have made on my journey have already applied for a large grant to continue the next part of the work. The end of my thesis is just the beginning of another journey!