MSE virtual symposium June 2021

The Microbes and Social Equity working group, The University of Maine Institute of Medicine, and Maine EPSCoR present an inaugural symposium on:

“Microbes, Social Equity, and Rural Health”

June 14 – 18th, 2021. Registration is closed, this event time has passed. But, you can read about it in our publication on the event:

Ishaq, S.L., Wissel, E.F., Wolf, P.G., Grieneisen, L., Eggleston, E.M., Mhuireach, G., Friedman, M., Lichtenwalner, A., Otero Machuca, J.,  Weatherford Darling, K.,  Pearson, A., Wertheim, F.S., Johnson, A.J., Hodges, L., Young, S., Nielsen, C.C., Kozyrskyj, A.L.,  MacRae, J.D., McKenna Myers, E., Kozik, A.J., Tussing-Humphreys, L.M., Trujillo, M., Daniel, G.A., Kramer, M.R., Donovan, S.M., Arshad, M., Balkan, J., Hosler, S. 2022. Designing the Microbes and Social Equity Symposium, a novel interdisciplinary virtual research conference based on achieving group-directed outputs. Challenges, 13(2), 30.


Microorganisms are critical to many aspects of biological life, including human health.  The human body is a veritable universe for microorganisms: some pass through but once, some are frequent tourists, and some spend their entire existence in the confines of our body tissues.  The collective microbial community, our microbiome, can be impacted by the details of our lifestyle, including diet, hygiene, health status, and more, but many are driven by social, economic, medical, or political constraints that restrict available choices that may impact our health.   

Many human clinical conditions or diseases have been established as being related  to the state of the human microbiome.  It is known that collective social inequity can drive the prevalence, morbidity, and mortality of some of these diseases or conditions. When access to a nutritious  diet and healthcare are impeded by social inequity, these disparities can also affect the human microbiome; this can further contribute to reduced or poorly functioning microbiomes. 

Access to resources is the basis for creating and resolving social equity—access to healthcare, healthy foods, a suitable living environment, and to beneficial microorganisms, but also access to personal and occupational protection to avoid exposure to infectious disease. The emergence of the SARS-CoV2 (COVID-19) pandemic has dramatically altered our daily lives and the availability and ability to access essential resources, which has been worsened by pre-existing social inequity. Yet, the pandemic has also highlighted the inherent social disparity among those more likely to be exposed to infectious diseases.  

This meeting highlights recent investigations into beneficial and detrimental instances of microbial exposure, in the context of how social policy may mediate or deepen disparities between and within populations. In addition to invited presentations on thematic sections, each section will involve a discussion session using smaller breakout groups, to facilitate conversations and brainstorming between attendees.  These groups will be arranged around smaller themes or research questions, and group members will identify knowledge gaps for future research, as well as list actionable steps that can be taken using existing research to promote equitable social policy.  Ideally, meeting attendees will gain knowledge, collaborators and connections, and a path forward for turning their research into evidence-based policy to support public health.

Meeting dynamics

Unlike traditional symposium formats, this meeting will present some plenary-style talks by experts in the field, including biological scientists, social scientists, practitioners or policy makers, as well as facilitate discussion among participants. Each thematic section will feature 90 minutes of talks, which will be recorded and made publicly available after the live session.  After each plenary session, there will be 90 minutes of discussion in groups led by speakers and MSE group members, and assisted by notetakers, with ~10 participants per breakout room. Participants will be encouraged to “problem solve” a suggested topic or one of their own choosing.  The goal is to create action items that are meaningful for group participants, such as ideas for curricula development, identifying research needs or best practices, suggestions for engaging research in policy, and more.


Please note, the speaker details were current as of June 2021.

Session 1: “Biopolitics and the human microbiome”

Monday, June 14th, 13:00 ~ 16:30 EST.

Session leaders: Michael Friedman and Sue Ishaq

The human microbiota is a mediator between social determinants of health and health outcomes. Social determinants, such as racism, sexism and social class position are power relations that shape human microbial communities by providing access and exposure to varying biological factors. In turn, shifts in such communities are associated with distinct health outcomes.  This opening session will introduce the concept of microbes and social equity, and open the discussion on how to create change.

Session Speakers:

Advocating for COVID equity by addressing misinformation, mistrust, and lack of access during COVID-19

Jessica Otero, Ph.D., Community Health Education Specialist at Mayo Clinic

Imagining Otherwise? Theory and practice for centering equity in Biomedicine.”

Kate Darling, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Maine, Augusta

Neighborhood inequalities: how where we live influences our health

Amber Pearson, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences at Michigan State University and an Adjunct Fellow in the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago

14:45 – 15:00 Break

15:00 – 16:30 Breakout room discussions/open time to chat

Prior to this session, you may want to watch these recorded talks:

Session 2: “Nutrition and the gut microbiome”

Tuesday, June 15th, 13:00 ~ 16:00 EST.

Session leader: Laura Grieneisen

Access to fresh foods, and especially fruits, vegetables, and other products high in fiber, is well demonstrated to be affected by social inequity.  The lack of fiber and nutritious food can dramatically hamper a functional gut microbiome.  With the effects of COVID-19 being felt, the loss of income/loss of SNAP benefits and disruption to our food and transport systems will make it more difficult for many individuals to obtain a nutritious diet and reap the benefit of a healthy gut microbiome. This effect will be disproportionately felt by lower-income individuals. This session explores the effects of diet on the gut microbiome and health, food insecurity, policy to support food access, and how to use existing resources to create community-based food systems.

Session Speakers:

University of Maine Cooperative Extension Programs, Resources and Research Relevant to Food Insecurity

Frank Wertheim, Ph.D., Associate Extension Professor, University of Maine Cooperative Extension

Dietary patterns and the microbiome

Abigail Johnson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota, and Associate Director, Nutrition Coordinating Center

USDA Approaches to Alleviating Food Insecurity during the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

Leslie Hodges, Ph.D., Research Agricultural Economist, Economic Research Service at the USDA

14:45 – 15:00 Break

15:00 – 16:30 Breakout room discussions/open time to chat

Prior to this session, you may want to watch these recorded talks:

Session 3: “Natural resources and access to environmental microbes”

Wednesday, June 16th, 13:00 ~ 16:00 EST.

Section leader: Gwynne Mhuireach

The relationship between health and greenspace is well-established. There is also a recognized association between social equity and distribution of greenspace in many cities—parks are often larger, higher quality, and more prevalent in higher-income, upper-class neighborhoods; private yards and gardens are a luxury sometimes inaccessible to lower-income households; even street trees tend to be older, larger, and more numerous in higher income neighborhoods. New evidence shows that exposure to microbial diversity may be an important ecosystem service provided by urban greenspace, as exposure to greater microbial diversity early in life is related to lower prevalence of autoimmune disorders, such as allergies and asthma. This session will explore how environmental justice can be used to resolve health, microbial, and land access disparities.

Session speakers:

Living near urban natural environments and gut microbiota diversity and composition in young infants

Charlene Nielsen, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Public Health, University of Alberta

Living near urban natural environments and gut microbiota diversity and composition in young infants

Anita Kozyrskyj, PhD, Department of Pediatrics, University of Alberta

“Biosolids, beneficial reuse and risk – or why we need to consider the whole system to avoid creating new problems”

Jean MacRae, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Maine

Predicting environmental sewage pollution persistence and engaging in public scholarship

Elise McKenna Myers, MPhil, M.A., Graduate Student at Columbia University & Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory

14:45 – 15:00 Break

15:00 – 16:30 Breakout room discussions/open time to chat

Prior to this session, you may want to watch these recorded talks:

Session 4: “Social and Environmental Stress”

Thursday, June 17th, 13:00 ~ 16:30 EST. Register for this session.

Section leader: Patricia Wolf

While it has been established that human behavior may impact microbiome structure, it has become evident that this is only part of the story. Historically racist housing policies may lead to inequitable exposure of those living in segregated neighborhoods to environmental pollutants. Additionally, life-long exposure to social and environmental stress faced by minority groups within the US may increase risk to disease through the alteration of host and bacterial metabolites. These inequities were compounded during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which neighborhood structural environments led to differing access to healthcare and treatment for the disease. Notably, those with the least access often were subject to higher exposure to the disease due to having “essential” employment. This session will explore the social and environmental factors that can impact human microbiomes, and will discuss measures that investigators should incorporate into research in order to fully understand microbial mechanisms of disease.

Session speakers:

It’s Probably Stress’: Towards a Better Understanding of our Microbes, Environment, and Society.

Ariangela Kozik, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Michigan, and the Co-founder and Vice President of the Black Microbiologists Association

Structural Violence, the Gut Microbiome and Colorectal Cancer Health Disparities

Lisa Tussing-Humphreys, PhD., M.S., R.D.,  Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Nutrition, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Director, UI Cancer Center’s Diet and Behavior Shared Resource.

The urban wastewater microbiome

Monica Trujillo, Ph.D., Associate Professor, of Biology Queensborough Community College, The City University of New York

14:45 – 15:00 Break

15:00 – 16:30 Breakout room discussions/open time to chat

Prior to this session, you may want to watch these recorded talks:

Session 5: “Access to healthcare and the microbiome”

Friday, June 18th, 13:00 ~ 16:30 EST.

Section leader: Emily Wissel

Access to healthcare, including treatment and preventative care, is critical to moderate beneficial host-microbe interactions and mitigate host-pathogen interactions, yet healthcare is inequitably distributed and often curbed by social policy. For instance, maternity care is well-demonstrated to improve health outcomes and facilitate the transfer of beneficial maternal microbes to newborns. Policies which support breastfeeding likewise promote this transfer of maternal microbes. Similarly, newborns and infants with access to care in their first five years of life have better outcomes overall than those with limited access. This difference in care during early life can impact lifelong differences in outcomes, reinforcing inequalities present at birth. This session will cover topics from the vaginal microbiome during pregnancy to the infant gut microbiome after birth, with perspectives from a clinician, public health researchers, and a biological scientist.

Session Speakers:

Sexual Health Disparities: How Social Determinants of Health May Affect the Vaginal Microbiome

Gaea Daniel, Ph.D., RN, Postdoctoral Fellow at Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University

“Place, race, and the ‘geomicrobiome’: How spatial mobility and environment can shape reproductive health”

Michael Kramer, Ph.D., Professor of Epidemiology and Director of Maternal and Child Health Center of Excellence at Emory University

How Disparities in Access to Health Care Could Impact the Maternal-Infant Microbiome

Sharon M Donovan, Ph.D., R.D., Professor, Director of the Personalized Nutrition Initiative, University of Illinois. 

14:45 – 15:00 Break

15:00 – 16:30 Breakout room discussions/open time to chat

Prior to this session, you may want to watch these recorded talks:

Planning committee:

  • Sue Ishaq, University of Maine
  • Emily Wissel, Emory University
  • Laura Grieneisen, University of Minnesota
  • Patricia Wolf, PhD, RDN, UIC Cancer Education and Career Development Training Program
  • Mike Friedman, AICASA/AUA
  • Gwynne Mhuireach, University of Oregon
  • Anne Lichtenwalner, University of Maine
  • Organizing administrative support: Cecile Ferguson, UMaine Institute of Medicine 

The Microbes and Social Equity Working Group is grateful to the University of Maine and the UMaine Institute of Medicine for providing financial and material support for this virtual meeting.