Postdoc Spotlight: Melanie Smee

Melanie Smee stands with plants in the foreground

September 19, 2022

Melanie Smee is a postdoc in microbiology from Portsmouth, United Kingdom. She holds a Ph.D. from Exeter University in the U.K., and her research at Cornell focuses on microbe-host interactions. She is a recipient of a Postdoc Achievement Award for Excellence in Leadership as part of Cornell’s celebration of National Postdoc Appreciation Week 2022.

What is your area of research, scholarship, or work and why is it important?

Broadly speaking I work on a variety of microbe-host interactions, from plants and bacteria, insects and bacteria, and more recently tropical fish and bacteria! I am constantly fascinated by the intricate interactions between these organisms – whether it’s pathogenic bacteria on plant surfaces killing aphids (costly agricultural pests), to the symbiotic bacteria housed inside aphids protecting them from parasitoid wasps or heat shock. We know that these types of host-microbe interactions and relationships are integral to the ecology and evolution of most organisms on earth, but we’re still just scratching the surface with our knowledge.

What are the broader implications of this research, scholarship, or work?

Much of my work to date has focused on insects – some that are endangered and some that are of huge agricultural concern. Understanding the interactions of these insects with microbes will help us ultimately conserve biodiversity and generate sustainable agricultural approaches. I focus on applying what we know of simple one-host: one-microbe interactions into community settings where competition and/or cooperation may occur. Working with a more realistic community setting is important if we hope to predict species’ responses in the future.

What does receiving a Postdoc Achievement Award mean to you?

So much! I feel incredibly honored. I get a lot of joy from building communities around me and listening and supporting others. Whether that’s trying to form a support network for postdocs, or just being a shoulder to lean on for grad students, or encouraging undergrads. I firmly believe that the community you have around you is one of the most important things in work and life in general. It makes me incredibly happy to help others achieve their potential and have fun along the way.

What hobbies or activities do you enjoy in your spare time?

I absolutely love to be outdoors, and Ithaca is an amazing place for all outdoor activities. I have fallen in love with trail running and mountain biking – I get such adrenaline and excitement from them but also get to be immersed in nature. I also discovered the Lindseth Climbing Center and met most of my friends through their Wellness class! We climb a lot, and I never thought I would be capable of rock climbing. 

I also get some kind of therapy or relaxation from gardening and growing plants. There’s something so satisfying and calm about it. I guess it balances out the adrenaline from the sports!

Why did you choose Cornell?

Honestly, it was a hard decision. I had another postdoc offer in the U.K. which was for two years whereas the postdoc offer here was one year. But I have always loved adventures and Cornell and Ithaca just seemed the right place for me. The research I would be doing in Dr. Hendry’s lab sounded really interesting to me, and my future PI sent me photos of all the beautiful waterfalls to tempt me over from the U.K.! 

What is next for you?

For personal reasons I am trying to stay in or close to NY state for now. I will continue to enjoy research and teaching opportunities and hopefully inspire future scientists of all backgrounds!

Do you have any advice for current graduate students?

Take every opportunity you can, you never know where it might lead. I once emailed a professor who was an expert in my field, and whom I’d never met, to ask for help rearing endangered butterflies. The conversation led to him visiting to give a talk in my department. That visit led to him asking his friend and colleague at OIST in Okinawa, Japan, if I could work with him. That led to me spending the most amazing three months in Okinawa and a chapter in my Ph.D. thesis!