Registration open for the Microbes and Social Equity virtual symposium, June 14 – 18, 2021

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

“Microbes, Social Equity, and Rural Health”

June 14 – 18th, 2021

Format: virtual meeting, Zoom platform.

Program and Registration

Registration, a full speaker list and program, and details of each day can be found here.

Registration will occur for each (day) section individually, so participants can select which topics to participate in, or all of them. 

Registration is free and open to the public.


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.

Title slide of a presentation on "Framing the discussion of microorganisms as a facet of social equity in human health" by Dr. Suzanne (Sue) Ishaq for the inVIVO Planetary Health 2020 conference.

The year of the virtual conferences

2020 has been an interesting year for scientific conferences and meetings, which typically bring dozens to thousands of researchers and professionals together to share their work. Some of the bigger meetings, or those occurring early on in the pandemic, elected to cancel their events because there was no time to adjust the logistics for hosting a massive meeting online.

As the year progressed with no sign of the pandemic abating, more conferences opted for a modified event online. This included live-stream and/or recorded content, spacing the event over a longer period to reduce “zoom fatigue”, and making network events smaller virtual versions. It certainly would have been more rewarding to be able to have these in person, but I am pleased that conference organizers chose safety as their priority.

In some ways, having virtual content made the material more accessible. recordings meant you could watch content at your convenience, more organizations provided or required subtitles for presentations, and those who would otherwise not be able to attend, because of cost, childcare, or travel constraints, were able to participate.

The Ishaq Lab presentations for 2020 is below, with presenters denoted with an asterisk (*).

  1. Ishaq*, S.L.”Framing the discussion of microorganisms as a facet of social equity in human health”, inVIVO Planetary Health 2020 meeting. (revised to virtual) Amsterdam, Netherlands. Dec 2020.
  2. Yeoman*, C., Lachman, M., Ishaq, S., Olivo, S., Swartz, J., Herrygers, M., Berarddinelli, J.  “Development of Climactic Oral and Rectal Microbiomes Corresponds to Peak Immunoglobin Titers in Lambs.”  Conference of Research Workers in Animal Diseases (CRWAD) 2020. (revised to virtual) Dec 5, 2020.
  3. Ishaq*, S.L., Hotopp, A., Silverbrand, S.,   MacRae, J.,  Stock, S.P.,  Groden, E. “Can a necromenic nematode serve as a biological Trojan horse for an invasive ant?” Entomological Society of America 2020. (revised to virtual). Nov 15-25, 2020.
  4. Ouverson*, L..,  DuPre, M.E., Ishaq, S.L.,  Bourgault, M., Boss, D., Menalled, F., Seipel, T. “Soil microbial community response to cover crop mixtures, termination methods, and climate in the Northern Great Plains.” Ecological Society of America (ESA) 2020. (revised to virtual) Salt Lake City, UT. Aug 2020.
  5. Menalled*, F.D., Seipel, T., Ishaq, S.L. “Agroecosystem resilience is modified by management system via plant–soil feedbacks.” Ecological Society of America (ESA) 2020. (revised to virtual) Salt Lake City, UT. Aug 2020.
  6. [meeting cancelled] Horve*, P.F., Dietz, L., Ishaq, S.L., Fretz, M., Van Den Wymelenberg, K. “Characterization of Viable Microbial Communities on Healthcare Associated Window Components.” American Society for Microbiology Microbe 2020, Chicago, IL. Jun 2020.
  7. [meeting cancelled] Horve*, P.F., Dietz, L., Ishaq, S.L., Fretz, M., Van Den Wymelenberg, K. “Characterization of Viable Microbial Communities on Healthcare Associated Window Components.” 2020 Microbiology of the Built Environment (MoBE) Gordon Research Conference, Andover, NH. Jun 2020.
  8. Ishaq*, S.L. “Framing the discussion of microorganisms as a facet of social equity in human health”. 3rd annual  Institute for Health in the Built Environment Build Health 2020. (revised to virtual) Portland, OR. May 2020. (invited). Video.
  9. Zeng*, H., Safratowich, B.D., Liu, Z., Bukowski, M.R., Ishaq, S.L. “Supplementation of calcium and vitamin D reduces colonic inflammation and beta-catenin signaling in C57BL/6 mice fed a western diet.” American Society for Nutrition 2020. (revised to virtual) Seattle, WA. June 2020.

Microbiomes at The Wildlife Society meeting

I gave my second talk in two days in as many conferences today, this time presenting on “Moose rumen microbes and their relevance to agriculture and health.” at the American Fisheries Society + The Wildlife Society (AFS+TWS) meeting in Reno, Nevada. You can find the slides with presentation notes: tws_2019_sue_ishaq_moose

I was invited to present in a session on the “Utility of Microbiomes for Population Management”, which presented research from scientists working on clams, fish, frogs, salamanders, koalas, and moose all focused on understanding the microbiome in order better understand wildlife. I had a great time talking wildlife microbes with this group!

The microbiomes speaker group at TWS 2019.

Unfortunately, I won’t be staying longer in Reno, either. In a few hours I’m heading to Bozeman, Montana, to meet with collaborators and teach bioinformatics to a grad student.

Summer outlook

I’ve got quite a busy summer ahead!  You’ll be able to find me at:

June 22, 2018: The HOMEChem Open House at the UT Austin Test House , University of Texas at Austin’s J.J. Pickle Research Campus.  I’ll be meeting with BioBE collaborators to discuss pilot projects exploring the link between indoor chemistry and indoor microbiology.

July 15 – 20, 2018: The Microbiology of the Built Environment (MoBE) Gordon Research Conference, University of New England in Biddeford, ME.  BioBE’s Dr. Jessica Green is meeting Vice Chair.

July 22 – 28, 2018: Indoor Air 2018 Conference in Philadelphia, PA.  I’ll be presenting some of the work I’ve been part of, exploring the effect of weatherization on bacteria indoors.

August 12 – 18, 2018: The 17th International Society for Microbial Ecology (ISME17) in Leipzig, Germany.  Here as well, I’ll be presenting some of the work I’ve been part of, exploring the effect of weatherization on bacteria indoors.






2017 Year in Review

The end of 2017 marks the second year of my website, as well as another year of life-changing events, and reflecting on the past year’s milestones help put all those long hours into perspective.  I reviewed my year last year, and found it particularly helpful in focusing my goals for the year ahead.

Looking Back

In the first half of 2017, I was working as a post-doctoral researcher in the Menalled lab at Montana State University, researching the interaction of climate change, farm management (cropping) system, and disease on soil bacteria in wheat fields, as well as the legacy effects on subsequent crops.  I am still working to analyze, interpret, and publish those results, and hope to submit several manuscripts from that project in early 2018.  In June, I began a position as a research assistant professor in the Biology and the Built Environment Center at the University of Oregon.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This involved another large move, not only from Montana to Oregon, which has led to some awesome new adventures, but also from agriculture and animal science to indoor microbiomes and building science.   So far, it has been a wonderful learning experience for incorporating research techniques and perspectives from other fields into my work.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

2017 has been another extremely productive year for me.  I presented some work at two conferences, the Congress on Gastrointestinal Function and the Ecological Society of America meeting (additional ESA posts here and here).  While at ESA, I was able to attend the 500 Women Scientists luncheon to discuss inequality in academia as well as recommendations we could make to improve ESA and other conferences ,such as offering affordable on-site child care, and action items we could take ourselves, such as attending training workshops to combat implicit bias or making sure job searches recruit a diverse candidate pool.

500 Women Scientist group at ESA 2017

This year, I added four new research publications and one review publication to my C.V., and received word that a massive collaborative study that I contributed to was accepted for publication- more on that once it’s available.  In April, I hosted a day of workshops on soil microbes for the Expanding Your Horizons for Girls program at MSU, and I gave a seminar at UO on host-associated microbiomes while dressed up as a dissected cat on Halloween.  In November, I participated in a Design Champs webinar; a pilot series from BioBE which provides informational discussions to small groups of building designers on aspects of how architecture and biology interact.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I published 34 posts in 2017, including this one, which is significantly fewer than the 45 I published in 2016.  However, I have doubled my visitor traffic and views over last year’s totals: over 2,000 visitors with over 3,200 page views in 2017! My highest-traffic day was April 27th, 2017.  While I am most popular in the United States, I have had visitors from 92 countries this year!

Map of home countries for 2017 website visitors.

My most popular post is currently “Work-life balance: what do professors do?”, with over 610 views! My least popular is “Presentation on juniper diets and rumen bacteria from JAM 2016 available!” with just 2 views, granted, that one appeals to a much narrower audience.  This year, in addition to updates on publications, projects, and positions, I wrote about writing; including theses and grants. I wrote about getting involved in science, be it through education, participation, or legislation.  I described outreach in academia, and the process of interviewing.  I gave some perspective on the effect of climate change and anthropological influence on agriculture and ecology, as well as on the debate surrounding metrics of success in graduate study.

I also added some “life” to my work-life balance; in November, I married my best friend and “chief contributor“, Lee Warren, in a small, stress-free ceremony with some local friends in Eugene, Oregon!!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Looking Ahead

I have high hopes for 2018, notably, I’d like to finish more of the projects that have been in development over the last two years during my post-docs.  Nearly all academics carry forward old projects: some need additional time for experimentation or writing, some get shelved temporarily due to funding or time constraints, some datasets get forgotten and gather dust, and some which got cut short because of the need to move to a new job.  This is a particular concern as grant funding and length of job postings become shorter, forcing researchers to cut multi-year projects short or finish them on their own time.  After defending in early 2015, I had two one-year postings and started at UO in June 2017, making this my fourth job in three years.  I’m looking forward to roosting for a bit, not only to clear out unfinished business, but also to settle into my new job at BioBE.  This fall, I have been analyzing data on a weatherization project, writing a handful of grants, and developing pilot projects with collaborators.  I have really enjoyed my first six months at BioBE, and Lee and I have taken a shine to Eugene.  In the next few months, I hope to have more posts about my work there, exciting new developments in BioBE and ESBL, and more insights into the work life of an academic.  Happy New Year!

Field notes from my first ESA meeting

From iDigBio
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.

500 Women Scientists at ESA, August 2017

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!

Presentation on maternal influences on the calf digestive tract from JAM 2016 available!

The video presentation of my work on the effects of maternal biotic influences on the developing calf digestive tract bacteria is finally available for public use!

Abstract 1522: Influence of colostrum on the microbiological diversity of the developing bovine intestinal tract

Suzanne L Ishaq, Elena Bichi, Sarah K Olivo, James Lowe, Carl J Yeoman, Brian M Alridge


A collaborative project on sheep feed efficiency and gut bacteria was published!

I’m pleased to announce that a paper that I contributed to was recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Animal Science!

“Feed efficiency phenotypes in lambs involve changes in ruminal, colonic, and small intestine-located microbiota”, Katheryn Perea; Katharine Perz; Sarah Olivo; Andrew Williams; Medora Lachman; Suzanne Ishaq; Jennifer Thomson; Carl Yeoman (article here).

Katheryn is an undergraduate at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology who received an INBRE grant to support her as a visiting researcher at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT over summer 2016.  Here, she worked with Drs. Carl Yeoman and Jennifer Thomson to perform the diversity analysis on the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract of sheep from a previous study.  These sheep had been designated as efficient or inefficient, based on how much feed was needed for them to grow.  Efficient sheep were able to grow more with less feed, and it was thought this might be due to hosting different symbiotic bacteria which were better at fermenting fibrous plant material into usable byproducts for the sheep.

Samples from the sheep were collected as part of a larger study on feed efficiency performed by MSU graduate students Kate Perz and Medora Lachman, as well as technicians Sarah Olivo and Andrew Williams, and Katheryn performed the data and statistical analysis using some of my guidelines.  This is Katheryn’s first published article, and one I just presented a poster on at the Congress on Gastrointestinal Function in Chicago, IL!

Screen Shot 2017-04-04 at 4.40.45 PM

2017 Congress on Gastrointestinal Function

I just got back from my very first Congress on Gastrointestinal Function, poster tube.jpga small meeting for  researchers with a specific focus on the gastrointestinal tract, which is held every two years in Chicago, Illinois.  The special session this year was on “Early Acquisition and Development of the Gut Microbiota: A Comparative Analysis”.  The rest of the sessions opened up the broader topics of gut ecosystem surveillance and modulation, as well as new techniques and products with which to study the effect of microorganisms on hosts and vice versa.  The research had a strong livestock animal focus, as well as a human health focus, but we also heard about a few studies using wild animals.

As I’ve previously discussed, conferences are a great way to interact with other scientists.  Not only can you learn from similar work, but you can often gain insights into new ways to solve research problems inherent to your system by looking at what people in different fields are trying, something that you might otherwise miss just by combing relevant literature online.  A meeting or workshop is also a great place to meet other similarly focused scientists to set up collaborators that span academia, government, non-profit, and industry sectors.

C9K9XmpXsAA1Xlq.jpg large.jpg
It was great to catch up with Dr. Ben Wenner, now at Purdue Agribusiness, and meet Yairy Roman-Garcia, grad student at the Ohio State University.

This year, I was excited for one of my abstracts to be accepted as a poster presentation, and honored to have the other upgraded from poster to talk!  Stay tuned for details about both of those projects in the coming weeks, and be sure to check this meeting out in April, 2019.

Plowing Forward: Montana Agriculture in a Changing Climate

Agriculture is consistently Montana’s largest economic sector, but as an arid state we need to prepare for the challenges brought on by changing weather patterns.  Yesterday, agricultural producers, scientists, special interest groups, lawmakers, and the general public came together at the Bozeman Public Library to talk about the future of climate change and what it means for people in the agricultural industry and research sector.  The event was organized by Plowing Forward, a collaborative group to coordinate local Ag. education efforts.

“If you’ve eaten today, then you’re involved in agriculture.”  -Chris Christiaens at the Plowing Forward meeting in Bozeman, MT, Feb 10, 2017

Opening remarks were led by Chris Christiaens, lobbyist and Project Specialist for the Montana Farmers Union, based in Great Falls, MT. Chris gave us some perspective on how Montana farming and ranching has changed over time, especially over the last 10 years,including changes to the growing season, harvest times, water usage, the types of plants which are able to survive here.  He reminded us that the effect of climate on agriculture affects all of us.

Chris Christiaens, Project Specialist for Montana Farmers Union.

Next, we heard from Montana’s Senator Jon Tester, who runs a farm in northern Montana that has been in his family since 1912.  The Senator spoke to his personal experiences with farming and how his management practices had adapted over the years to deal with changing temperature and water conditions.  Importantly, he spoke about how agriculture is a central industry to the United States in ways that will become even more apparent in the coming years as the negative effects of climate change affect more and more areas.  Food security, a peaceful way of life, and economic vitality (not just in Montana or the United States, but globally), were contingent upon supporting agricultural production under adverse events.  He assured agricultural stakeholders that he continues to support production, research, and education, including the work we do in the laboratory as well as out in the field to promote agriculture.

Montana Senator Jon Tester

Next, we heard from three professors from Montana State University.  Dr. Cathy Whitlock, a Professor of Earth Sciences, who is also the Director for the MSU Institute on Ecosystems, and a Lead Coordinator for the Montana Climate Assessment.  The Montana Climate Assessment seeks to assemble past and current research on Montana climate in order to assess trends, make predictions about the future, and help both researchers and producers to tailor their efforts based on what is happening at the regional level.  The Assessment is scheduled for release in August, 2017, and will allow for faster dissemination of research information online.

Dr. Whitlock’s introduction to the MCA was continued by  Dr. Bruce Maxwell, a Professor of Agroecology, as well as the Agriculture Sector Lead for the Montana Climate Assessment.  He summarized current research on the present water availability in Montana, as well as what we might see in the future.  He warned that drier summers were likely, and while winters may get wetter, if they continue to get warmer that snow runoff will flow into rivers before the ground has thawed.  This means snow melt will flow out of the region more quickly and not be added to local ground water sources for use here.  To paraphrase Bruce, a longer growing season does you no good if you don’t have any water.

Dr. Bruce Maxwell, Montana State University

We also heard from my current post-doctoral advisor, Dr. Fabian Menalled, Professor of Weed Ecology Management and Cropland Weed Specialist (Extension).  He presented some of the results from our ongoing project at Fort Ellis on the interactions between climate change (hot and dry conditions), farm management system (conventional or organic), disease status, and weed competition on wheat production.  Increased temperatures and decreased moisture reduced wheat production but increased the amount of cheatgrass (downy brome), a weed which competes with wheat and can reduce wheat growth.  My work on the soil bacterial diversity under these conditions didn’t make it into the final presentation, though.  I have only just begun the data analysis, which will take me several months due to the complexity of our treatments, but here is a teaser: we know very little about soil bacteria, and the effects we are seeing are not exactly what we predicted!

Here is the video of Dr. Menalled’s presentation (just under 9 minutes):

Lastly, we heard from a local producer who spoke to his experience with ranching on a farm that had been run continuously for well over 100 years.  His talk reflected the prevailing sentiment of the presentations: that farm practices had changed over the last few decades and people in agriculture were already responding to climate change, even if previously they wouldn’t put a name to it.  The presentations concluded with a question and answer session with the entire panel, as well as a reminder that we all have the right and the obligation to be invested in our food system.  Whether we grow produce or raise livestock for ourselves or others, whether we research these biological interactions, whether we set the policy that affects an entire industry, or whether we are just a consumer, we owe it to ourselves to get involved and make sure our voice is heard.  To that end, I wrote a letter to my legislators (pictured below), and in the next few weeks I’ll be writing posts about how I participate in science (and agriculture) on the local and national level.

Make your voice heard.