A couple of weeks ago, I attended my first Ecological Society of America meeting in Portland, which assembles a diverse community of researchers looking at system-wide processes. It was an excellent learning experience for me, as scientific fields each have a particular set of tools to look at different problems and our collective perspectives can solve research problems in more creative ways.
In particular, it was intriguing to attend talks on the ecology of the human microbiome. Due to the complexity of host-associated microbial communities, and the limitations of technology, the majority of studies to date have been somewhat observational. We have mapped what is present in different animals, in different areas of the body, under different diet conditions, in different parts of the world, and in comparison between healthy and disease states. But given the complexity of the day-to-day life of people, and ethics or technical difficulty of doing experimental studies in humans, many of the broader ecological questions have yet to be answered.
For example, how quickly do microbial communities assemble in humans? When you disturb them or change something (like adding a medication or removing a food from your diet) how quickly does this manifest in the community structure and do those changes last? How does dysbiosis or dysfunction in the body specifically contribute to changes in the microbial community, or do seemingly harmless events trigger a change in the microbial community which then causes disease in humans? Some of the presentations I attended have begun teasing out these problems with a combination of observational in situ biological studies, in vitro laboratory studies, and in silico mathematical modeling. The abstracts from all the meeting presentations can be found on the meeting website under Program. I have also summarized several of the talks I went to on Give Me The Short Version.
One of my favorite parts was attending an open lunch with 500 Women Scientists, a recently-formed organization which promotes diversity and equality in science, and supports local activists to help change policy and preconceived notions about diversity in STEM. The lunch meeting introduced the organization to the conference participants in attendance, asked us to voice our concerns or difficulties we had faced, encouraged us to reach out to others in our work network to seek advice and provide mentoring, and walked us through exercises designed to educate on how to build a more inclusive society.
My poster presentation was on Wednesday, halfway through the meeting week, which gave me plenty of time to prepare. You never know who might show up at your poster and what questions they’ll have. In the past, I’ve always had a steady stream of people to chat with at my poster which has led to a number of scientific friendships and networking, and this year was no different. The rather large (but detailed) poster file can be found here: Ishaq et al ESA 2017 poster . Keep in mind that this is preliminary work, and many statistical tests have not yet been applied or verified. I’ve been working to complete the analysis on the large study, which also encompasses a great deal of environmental data. We hope to have manuscript drafted by this fall on this part of the project, and several more over the next year from the research team as this is part of a larger study; stay tuned!