Inspiring stories from women in microbiome science, on International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Roles in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are critical for any country’s prosperity and economic success, but most countries in the world have not achieved gender equality in STEM-related fields. The United Nations’ (UN) International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, 2024 is a chance to promote full and equal participation in science for women and girls.

Microbiome Insights is thrilled to work with many incredible women scientists in the microbiome field. In honor of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, our team reached out to some of these scientists to hear the inspiring stories of how they found their career path in STEM and what drives them in their scientific endeavours.

Watching Outbreak sparked an interest in microbial pathogenesis

Dr. Nelly Amenyogbe PhD is a research fellow at Dalhousie University. She completed a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology and Immunology, as well as a PhD in Experimental Medicine, at University of British Columbia. Her current research focuses on the concept of host resilience, and specifically how microbes help newborns become more resilient to infection. She uses animal models combined with data from humans to understand how the gut microbiome influences immune fitness, and thus how conditions such as neonatal sepsis can be prevented.

On what inspired her to become a scientist, Dr. Amenyogbe says multiple factors contributed from middle school and onward.

“Watching the movie "Outbreak" in the 7th grade was my first exposure to the microbial world, then viewed as a hostile relationship between us and them. Next, I had a great mentor and role model – Professor Francis Amara at the University of Manitoba gave me the chance to volunteer at his biomedical lab as a high school student, where I gladly spent Saturday evenings changing cell media. I was hooked. Needless to say, I felt right at home at Microbiology & Immunology at UBC – where thanks to Professors like Bill Mohn – my view of the microbial world expanded quite a bit by learning about the intricate relationships in microbial communities. It was a time when microbiome research was in its infancy, and I had front-row seats to watch the field unfold.”

Seeing blood cells under a microscope provoked curiosity about how the body worked

Dr. Marie-Claire Arrieta is an Associate Professor at the University of Calgary and is part of the university’s International Microbiome Center. After receiving a BSc from University of Costa Rica and MSc from University of Alberta, she received her PhD in Experimental Medicine, also from the University of Alberta. Her lab focuses on microbial contributions to early-life developmental programming that influences health and disease. Through both clinical and preclinical research, her lab uses microbiome, metabolome, and immunological profiling to decipher the role of bacteria and fungi in the development of various chronic diseases. She is also co-author of a popular non-fiction book called Let Them Eat Dirt.

Dr. Arrieta says she had a strong interest in science throughout her childhood – and to this day, she is the only scientist in her immediate and extended family.

“In childhood I was interested in observing nature, conducting ‘experiments’ at home - mainly taking apart toys and small appliances, with poor success at assembling them back properly! I loved books, especially the encyclopedias my dad would buy from time to time, and I wanted chemistry or tool kits for Christmas. One of my first memories was when my dad took me to a clinical lab for a blood test. My dad says I wouldn't stop asking questions during the blood draw, and that the lab technician invited us to the lab to see my own blood cells under a microscope. I was very young, maybe 4 or 5, but still remember the images very vividly: the cells tinged with pink, blue and purple, their different shapes and sizes, and how they completely filled the field of view. After that, I spent a lot of time imagining that ‘microcosmos’ inside of me, what the different cells did and how they ‘talked’ to each other. It was no surprise to anyone when I decided to study microbiology and that I now do research for a living.”

As a girl in India, challenged the status quo by focusing on education

Dr. Nalini Kaul is Vice President Technical Services at Princeton Consumer Research in Canada. She received her PhD in Experimental Cardiology from the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in India, and is a clinical trials professional. As a well-respected scientist, she has more than thirty years’ experience in helping clients further their technical knowledge about cosmetics, natural health products, medical devices, OTC products and pharmaceuticals and meeting strategic regulatory and marketing objectives.

Dr. Kaul grew up in a remote part of India-Kashmir- where girls were expected to get married early. However, her father, wasn't satisfied with her getting married young and advised her to make something of her life first. Seeing she studied hard and was a straight-A student, her father, encouraged her to challenge this norm by pursuing her education.

“Growing up, science was well respected in my community, but the only science-related career choices were to become a doctor or engineer. Yet I remember my father, who had apple orchards and sold vegetable and flower seeds all over the country, telling me that his friend’s son abroad had published a scientific paper on apple scab, a disease that affected orchards. This paper seemed to be important for the farming industry in our area. I remember thinking to myself, what is this "scientific publication'? That's what I want to do. I dreamt of pursuing education and training at reputed institutions in Canada and the US".

Later, when her father died during a time of violent clashes and political turmoil in Kashmir province, she was more determined than ever to honor his wishes and pursue science. Dr. Kaul’s education provided a way for the rest of her family to survive, in fact. When her mother and brothers were forced to leave Kashmir, she supported them on the stipend she received during her PhD.

Dr. Kaul’s first scientific job after graduation was as Assistant Research Scientist at the Indian Council of Medical Research. She then came to Canada as a postdoctoral fellow and eventually to the US, first as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southern California and then as a Senior Scientist at the University of Texas at Dallas. She then pivoted towards the world of clinical trials and continued to build her career in that area.

“Any product you see on the shelf, whether it’s a cosmetic, personal hygiene product, dietary supplement, medical device, or pharmaceutical, has to be clinically tested. My role is to help companies design better studies that meet their regulatory and marketing needs. In my role broad scientific expertise is needed, as well as management and interpersonal skills. I’m still learning through what I do every day. Looking back, I think my father would be proud to know I’ve fulfilled his wishes by pursuing a scientific career, and even more by creating my own identity.”

Driven to show the importance of the microbiome in human brain disorders

Dr. Jane Foster PhD is a Professor at University of Texas Southwestern (UTSW) Medical Center. After receiving her PhD from the University of Toronto she established a lab group at McMaster University, where she was one of the first to successfully drive the multidisciplinary research program needed to show the links between gut microbes and human brain disorders. Her work combined behavioral neuroscience, molecular biology, immunology, neuroimaging, microbiome science, and bioinformatics. Today, her continued work at UTSW spans basic and clinical research, investigating how microbes and the immune system affect the brain and behavior—and depression in particular.

When asked what scientific finding stands out in her career, Dr. Foster points to her 2023 publication in Translational Psychiatry that described a gut microbial community associated with anxiety symptoms in a cohort of depressed individuals. The work was conducted by her lab at McMaster University in collaboration with the Center for Depression Research and Clinical Care (CDRC) at UTSW, led by Madhukar Trivedi. The groundwork, however, was laid many years ago.

“The original work that linked the microbiome to anxiety in germ-free mice was done in my lab, and at the same time in Rochellys Diaz Heitz's lab at Karolinska Institut, more than a decade ago. Both of those papers were published in 2011 and were key papers that catalyzed neuroscientists to think about the microbiome. This exciting line of research also led to my move to join the research team at the CDRC at UTSW in May of 2022. Our biomarker research program at the CDRC aims to use a microbiome-informed approach that can lead to the development and validation of a blood or stool test to directly guide prevention and intervention approaches for depression in psychiatry – and more broadly, in the context of physical health conditions.”

Developing a knack for interdisciplinary scientific projects

Dr. M. Marta Guarna is a Research Scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada as well as Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia. Having studied biochemistry at the University of Buenos Aires, she later received her PhD from New York University (NYU). Currently she focuses on research and outreach related to honey bee health and pollination – in particular, honey bee queen fertility, gut microbiome, and infectious diseases.

Dr. Guarna says one of her earliest memories of science was when a school chemistry teacher gave the students crackers to chew slowly and asked them to notice how the taste changed over time, explaining that the increased sweetness was due to a salivary amylase enzyme starting to degrade starch into sugars. From there, she developed a curiosity for science and forged a career working with others to tackle important questions about the natural world.

“I believe most of the time, scientific advancements happen from an iterative process involving many individuals or groups. During my PhD at NYU I worked on understanding the biochemical mechanism for niche selection of costal invertebrates based on the type of food available in different areas. This was possible due to a combination of my supervisor’s expertise in ecology and genetics and my background in biochemistry. It was a great match of complementary disciplines. (We did not have the ability to do microbiome analysis at the time, which would have enriched our understanding of the system.) And in the bee world, we have brought together different specialists to understand the important role that bees and their microbiome can play as environmental monitors. My inclination towards interdisciplinary collaborations facilitated this work because it requires multiple disciplines, from bioinformatics to biochemistry to environmental ecology. And much is still to be discovered.”

Teachers inspired awareness of the world’s complexity

Dr. Laurence Ris is a Professor and Head of the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Mons (UMONS) in Belgium. She received her PhD from UMONS, and studied in both Paris and London. She created the Centre for Psychophysiology and Electrophysiology of cognition of UMONS and currently researches the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying memory deficits, as well as how neuroinflammation impacts synaptic plasticity and cognition. Using rodent models, her lab investigates how immune cell infiltration, cytokine release and cell proliferation in the hippocampus correlate with deficits in cognition and in synaptic plasticity of the glutamatergic transmission.

Dr. Ris points to two individuals in particular who inspired her to consider a career in science.

“My high school physics teacher introduced us to quantum physics. For me, this was a gateway to discovering the complexity of the world, which sparked my desire to always learn more. I also had a realization of the potential that science offers, if not to fully understand, at least to approach this complexity. Then my biology teacher, during the same year, talked to me about evolution and genetics. I was fascinated by the possibility of explaining, through research, the diversity of species and their evolution. So my scientific career came from both a thirst for learning and the idea that it was possible to contribute to knowledge through scientific research.” 

Fascinated by how a broken arm healed

Dr. Kathy McCoy is Professor at the University of Calgary and Scientific Director of the International Microbiome Centre. She obtained her PhD in Immunology from Otago University in New Zealand. She worked in Switzerland and later held Assistant Professor positions at McMaster University in Canada and the University of Bern in Switzerland. Returning to Canada in 2016, she continues her research at the University of Calgary on the dynamic interplay between the gut microbiota and the innate and adaptive immune systems. Her lab uses germ-free and gnotobiotic mouse models to understand how exposure to intestinal microbes early in life educates and regulates the developing immune system, and how this impacts susceptibility to immune-mediated diseases such as allergy and autoimmunity. Her lab also investigates how the microbiome regulates the efficacy of cancer immunotherapy with the aim to identify microbial therapies that can be employed to enhance current therapeutic approaches.

In Dr. McCoy’s younger years, mishaps and broken bones were some of the first experiences that sparked a scientific curiosity about how living things managed to heal.

“I grew up on a ‘dirt’ farm and I had a lot of freedom to play outside, ride horses, and be a bit wild. I managed to break my arm many times throughout my childhood and was amazed at how the body was able to heal itself so effectively. I became fascinated by the observation that despite all kinds of challenges, the majority of animals and people remained healthy. I was amazed at how the body aims to maintain ‘homeostasis’, even before I knew what this concept was. Once I discovered immunology, I was hooked! My love of microbiome science was a natural progression when I realised how much the microbiome modulates immunity.”

About Microbiome Insights

Microbiome Insights, Inc. is a global leader providing end-to-end microbiome sequencing and comprehensive bioinformatic analysis. The company is headquartered in Vancouver, Canada where samples from around the world are processed in its College of American Pathologist (CAP) accredited laboratory. Working with clients from pharma, biotech, nutrition, cosmetic and agriculture companies as well as with world leading academic and government research institutions, Microbiome Insights has supported over 925 microbiome studies from basic research to commercial R&D and clinical trials. The company's team of expert bioinformaticians and data scientists deliver industry leading insights including biomarker discovery, machine-learning based modelling and customized bioinformatics analysis.