In Search of Pollution: Microbial Source Tracking in the UK

An EngD's musings on Microbial Source Tracking (MST), Environmental Engineering, Education and Science Communication.


Professional experience

Feb – May 2018: Senior Policy Officer, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency.

I was Awarded one of three places on the highly-competitive NERC policy internship scheme. During the 3 month placement I was responsible for:

  • The delivery of 3 work packages with sole responsibility for the planning and presentation of a report to the agency management team;
  • Delivering desk-based research on sustainability and regulatory processes considering how the agency can work with retail sectors to improve sustainability through the life cycle of goods;
  • Producing the first review of a Sustainable Growth Agreement both internally to the board and externally in the form of a report.


2014 – Present: Research Engineer, Northumbrian Water/ Newcastle University

This project is part of an extended 4-year engineering doctorate. The focus of the project is the Development and evaluation of new microbial source tracking methods to direct investment decisions for pollution mitigation in complex catchments. During the project I:

  • Developed new laboratory-based methods to identify and quantify diffuse, urban pollution.
  • Used these methods as part of a £50 million project and a separate catchment study.
  • Delivered 2 catchment-wide case studies which involved collaboration with a range of stakeholders such as the Environment Agency, landowners, farmers and community groups.
  • Supervised three MSc projects which involved planning, organising and mentoring students to deliver industry targeted projects.


2010 – 2013: Head of Learning Community and Teacher of Physics, Mascalls School

After spending one year as an outstanding teacher I was given an advanced skills teacher role within the school and subsequently promoted to Head of Learning community where my responsibilities included:

  • The pastoral care, performance, and progression of ~ 20 teachers and 380 students.
  • Liaising with outside agencies to access and deliver necessary support.
  • Consultancy work to implement a new pastoral care system in an under-performing school.
  • Planning and leading meetings and training sessions in-house and between outside agencies.



2014 – Present: Engineering Doctorate in Environmental Engineering Newcastle University

The Skills, Technology, Research and Management (STREAM) doctoral training program for the water industry, consists of 8 MSc modules and a 4-year research project. The research focus was the use of new microbial source tracking techniques to inform investment decisions when trying to locate and mitigate diffuse sources of pollution.

Relevant Modules:  Environmental Policy and Risk Governance; Hydro-informatics; Asset Management Policy & Strategy; Water & Wastewater Treatment Principles.

2013 – 2014 MSc Environmental Engineering (Distinction), Newcastle University

Dissertation title: Effect of Feeding Regime on Anaerobic Digestion of Food Waste

2008 – 2010 PGCE Secondary Science (Physics), University of Cumbria

Awards:   Best performing student award

2004 – 2008 BSc (Hon) Outdoor Studies (2:1), University of Lancaster


Awards and grants

Presidents grant from the Society of Applied Microbiology, £1200, 2016

Best presentation, STREAM annual conference, 2018.

Best poster, Institute of Water annual conference, 2017.

Best presentation, Newcastle School of Engineering conference, 2016.

Best research engineer award, 2014-2015.

Best student award in Environmental Engineering, 2013-2014.

Best performing student, 2008-2010


Mrozik et al., (Submitted) The Food-Water Quality Nexus in Periurban Aquacultures Located Downstream of Bangkok, Thailand

Robson et al., (In Prep) Degradation of Sewage Related Microbial Communities and their relationship with regulatory faecal indicators.

Robson et al., (In PrepIdentification of Human-Associated E.coli Biomarkers using a Database Approach for Source Tracking in the UK.

Robson et al., (In Prep) Human-Associated E.coli Genetic Markers and Community Analysis to. Identify Pollution from Decentralized Systems.

Martin. T. J. et al., (2017) Environmentally Relevant Inoculum Concentrations Improve the Reliability of Persistent Assessments in Biodegradation Screening Tests, Environmental Science & Technology 2017 51 (5), 3065-3073, DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.6b05717

Robson. A (2014) Hidden Pathways: Thoughts on Effective Group Dynamics, Horizons Magazine, Institute of Outdoor Learning, Available at:


Robson. A (2018) “Who Pooed in the Sea?”, Northumbrian Water Scientific Services, Leat House, Washington.

Robson. A (2018) “Microbial Source Tracking in the North East, UK”, Environment Agency North East Bathing Water Conference, Tyneside house, Newcastle.

Robson. A (2018) “Who Pooed in the Sea?”, Invited speaker at a lunch and learn seminar for the Environment Agency, Tyneside house, Newcastle.

Robson. A (2017) “Who Pooed in the Sea? Bathing water and Public Health”, Invited speaker to give a seminar for the Department of Civil Engineering at Newcastle University.

Robson. A (2016) “E.coli as a tool for Microbial Source Tracking”, IWA Diffuse Pollution and Catchment Management regional conference, Dublin.


Higher education teaching

I have taught on a range of modules and workshops including

One Health Workshop, Newcastle School of Medicine, Malaysia. This course was planned and delivered by myself and a colleague. The week-long course included simple microbiology techniques for water quality analysis, such as bacterial culturing and antibiotic sensitivity analyses, through to qPCR and next-generation sequencing and bioinformatics techniques.

Molecular Microbial Workshop for Environmental Engineers, Newcastle University, School of Engineering. This course was planned and delivered by myself and two colleagues. The four-day course included microbial and molecular techniques using samples typically encountered by environmental engineers. The course involved site visits to a wastewater treatment plant and bioinformatics training.

Environmental Systems1st year Civil Engineering undergraduates, I have organised and delivered laboratory sessions for on water quality for 4-years.

Practical Hydraulics, Environmental Engineering MSc course, I taught sewer-hydraulics and led laboratory sessions involving simple investigations such as determining pipe friction coefficients and calibration of different types of weir for 2 years.

Engineering Biology through Molecular Microbial Ecology, Environmental Engineering MSc course, I delivered an introduction to next-generation sequencing as well as a course on bioinformatics for 16s analysis.



Professional development and memberships

An active member of:

  • CIWEM (Student);
  • IEMA (Student);
  • IWA (Student); and
  • IOW (Student).

I have undertaken a range of technical and managerial training including:

  • Policy and risk analysis;
  • Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment (2016);
  • R programming for data science (2017);
  • DNA sequencing (2015); and
  • Middle and senior leadership training (2012).


Volunteering, activities, and interests

I enjoy combining my passions for the environment, travel, and adventure through expeditions, climbing, and cycling. My last adventure involved leading a group of young people to Ecuador where they lived with a Shuar tribe and undertook a high altitude trek.

I regularly volunteer as a STEM ambassador. In 2018 I co-coordinated the Pint of Science event at Newcastle, coordinating 5 teams to organise 15 events over 3 nights involving over 30 speakers. This was incredibly successful and the largest Pint of Science at Newcastle with over 600 tickets sold.