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.

Johanna Holman is awarded UMaine Grad Student Employee of the Year!

Johanna Holman, Master’s of Nutrition student in the Ishaq Lab has been awarded the 2020-2021 University of Maine Graduate Student Employee of the Year!!!!

I met Johanna in the fall of 2019, when I was just establishing myself as a new Assistant Professor in the School of Food and Agriculture, and she was looking for an advisor for a graduate degree.  Right away, she impressed me with her background and enthusiasm for research.  I learned that Johanna began her undergraduate study as an art student before transitioning fluidly to science.  I see this is an asset – the ability to design visual aid and graphical representations of data is hugely important to science and sadly, not always a skill that scientists are trained to do. Johanna also had a number of service industry jobs, and initially in that first meeting, she was somewhat apologetic for not having been devoted to science jobs from the start.  I countered that I was pleased to see that she has worked in other industries, specifically in difficult service-related jobs.  It is often more important to have patience, dedication, and strong interpersonal skills, such as those gained by working in customer-facing jobs.  I believe that Johanna has and will continue to succeed because of her varied education and experience.

Once she became a science student during her undergraduate study, she worked in the laboratories of Drs. Yanyan Li, Associate Professor (of nutrition) in the College of Science and Humanities, and Tao Zhang, Assistant Professor of Basic Pharmaceutical Sciences, both of Husson University in Bangor.  There, she has performed nutritional biochemistry, worked with mouse models, and developed an idea of what she wanted to study in graduate school and pursue as a career. 

Johanna officially joined my lab and started as a Master’s Student of Nutrition at UMaine in fall 2020, and immediately got to work.  Not only did she begin preparations for the massive undertaking that is part of her project, but she began mentoring several undergraduates on and off campus, and started as a first time teaching assistant for the Chemistry department, which required navigating virtual labs.

Johanna’s project focuses on whether consumption of specific broccoli sprout preparations will elicit changes in the gut microbiota, to the effect of improving the production of microbiota-specific bioactives that have local anti-inflammatory effects, and promoting intestinal homeostasis by reducing dysbiosis. This project is a continuation of previous research on bioactive compounds in broccoli, completed in the labs of Drs. Yanyan Li and Tao Zhang at Husson University in Bangor.  While some of the work may be similar, the skill set is entirely new.  For the winter break, Johanna was managing a 40-mouse study for 5 weeks, which has resulted in hundreds of samples collected, hundreds of data time points, and enough follow-up laboratory and analysis work to keep her occupied for an entire year.  She has learned how to culture bacteria in an anaerobic chamber, which is a notoriously fussy machine that requires regular attention, as well as to grow them under different conditions for biochemical analysis and enzyme activity.  She will be learning DNA extraction, DNA sequencing library preparation, DNA sequence analysis, and will lead the generation of a large manuscript on the results.

It might seem too early to recommend a graduate student for this award after just one semester, but it is remarkable that a new master’s student could achieve all of this in their first semester during a pandemic.  I have informally mentored graduate and undergraduate students for years, and it is easy to spot the ones who will go far in science. Johanna has a highly successful career ahead of her, and I am honored to be one stop on that path.  This award will not only acknowledge the incredible amount of work she has accomplished, but it will support an early career researcher who has every quality to make research a hospitable and collaborate place.

Save the date for the Microbes and Social Equity symposium!

Sign up for updates!!

We are in the processing of finalizing our speaker list and program, as well as creating registration links. Stay tuned for more information.

In the meantime, please enjoy our free speaker series!

A close-up picture of petri dishes containing a light yellow film of microbes.

Rebecca received an undergraduate research award!

Rebecca French, an undergraduate researcher in Animal and Veterinary Science, is beginning her time in the Ishaq Lab with an auspicious start: she has been awarded a 2021 research award from the J. Franklin Witter Undergraduate Research Endowment Fund! The fund supports AVS undergraduate student involvement in faculty supervised research which involves the J. Franklin Witter Teaching & Research Center.

Rebecca’s project will involve zoonotic disease tracking in rodent populations that live near farms/human development versus those which live in more natural areas, and will take place at the Witter farm and a paired natural ecosystem. Her project is part of a larger collaboration between myself and a team of researchers, which was recently funded by the University of Maine, but which has not yet been announced (details soon).

Rebecca formally joined my research lab in February of this year, but I have had the pleasure of teaching her in my data analysis class since January, which will be a handy skillset later in the project. She also learn and perform microbial culturing, qPCR, Sanger sequencing, and even some animal trapping, handling, and identification; mammal physiology data collection and analysis.

Rebecca French

Undergraduate Researcher, Animal and Veterinary Sciences

Rebecca is an animal and veterinary science student with a concentration in pre-veterinary medicine. She joined the Ishaq lab team in 2021 as a part of her capstone project, which is focused on flying squirrels and mice that are carrying zoonotic pathogens into Maine.

Applications sought for Assistant Extension Professor and Assistant Professor of Animal Science at the University of Maine

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension invites applications for a full-time, fiscal-year, continuing contract eligible faculty appointment as Assistant Extension Professor and Assistant Professor of Animal Science. 

This position is an 85% appointment with UMaine Extension and a 15% teaching appointment through the University of Maine School of Food and Agriculture.

The successful candidate will be located on the campus of the University of Maine in Orono, Maine.

The faculty member in this position will develop and lead educational outreach and applied research with an emphasis on dairy science; work with other UMaine faculty and professionals, advisory boards and volunteers to offer off-campus programs addressing the educational needs of the Maine dairy industry and other agricultural industries; teach undergraduate courses in the School of Food and Agriculture (SFA).

For a complete job description and to apply:

Search Timeline is as follows:
Review of applications to begin: April 15, 2021
Screening interviews to begin no earlier than: April 30, 2021
On-site (or virtual visit) interviews to begin no earlier than: May 15, 2021
Tentative start date: July 1, 2021

Microbes and Social Equity at UMaine

Last week, I chatted about Microbes and Social Equity with Ali Tobey, Marketing and Communications Graduate Assistant for the Office of the Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Maine. The MSE working group has been meeting for a year to discuss how microorganisms are what connects us to each other or to the environment, how microbes are involved in so much of human health, how disparities in access to basic needs can affect your health and your microbes, and how social policy can be used to resolve social inequity and improve health for all.

This spring, the MSE group and the University of Maine Institute of Medicine are hosting a semester-long speaker series. The talks range from basic to applied science, from research to education to medical practice, and touch on a variety of topics. The series is free, and open to the public, but registration is required.

The full list of speaker and registration links for the Microbes and Social Equity spring 2021 speaker series can be found here, and Ali’s piece is below:

Reblog of the story by Ali Tobey, University of Maine

Screenshot from an online seminar. The video of the speaker is in the upper right corner, and the title slide is the rest of the image. The seminar is "A crash course in the gut microbiome" by Sue Ishaq at the University of Maine.

UMaine Institute of Medicine seminar available online

Last Friday, I gave a seminar on “A crash course in the gut microbiome” to the University of Maine Institute of Medicine as part of their fall seminar series. You can find the previous seminars in that series here.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to share my science to researchers around Maine, and to have so many engaging questions!

You can find my seminar recording here, and a pdf of the slides with my presenter notes as annotated comments can be found here:

All 3 UMaine undergrads in the Ishaq Lab made Dean’s List Spring 2020 !

Congratulations to all three University of Maine undergrads in the Ishaq Lab for making the Dean’s List in Spring 2020: Jade Chin (AVS), Nicholas Hershbine (EES), and Emily Pierce (AVS)!!

Note, the Bowdoin Dean’s List is announced annually in the fall.

Red marker drawing a line.

Incorporating the pandemic into teaching curricula

Not only is the ongoing ‘COVID-19’ pandemic a collective experience and historical event, it has changed the way we interact with each other and with our infrastructure. It’s pertinent to incorporate these events into teaching curricula, not only to study these changes in real time, but to help us make sense of what is happening during these difficult days. A number of faculty at the University of Maine have been and will be integrating various aspects of the pandemic into their teaching. For my part, I’ll be guiding students on research projects related to how COVID-19 and public policy has affected agriculture and veterinary practice.

“COVID has very suddenly and dramatically changed the way we interact with each other, and has had repercussions for food, agriculture and animal care industries,” Ishaq says. “Students need to understand these changes to build more resilient and sustainable food and health care systems.”

“Faculty incorporate COVID-19 content into curricula”, Marcus Wolf, June 23, 2020

Featured Image Credit: Miriam Webster

An image of a microbiology and genetics laboratory.

Establishing a research laboratory

As a new assistant professor at the University of Maine, 50% of my appointment is research. To establish my research, I started with curating a space to fulfill the needs of my work — “professional nesting”, if you will. I was allotted two adjacent rooms for my lab work, one as a microbial culturing space, and one for genomics work. I asked for and was granted separate spaces to reduce to likelihood of contamination sourced from my culturing space.

Prior to my arrival at the University of Maine, both lab spaces were set up to perform different research from what I do. This may not seem like it would interfere with my work, but the type of research you do will influence the machinery you need, each of which may have space or utilities requirements, as well as the flow of traffic through the room. To reduce the amount of time you spend moving around the room in search of elusive supplies, it’s best to curate work stations within the room. To that end, the Ishaq lab team spent several days re-arranging the large machinery and the table-top equipment, and then moving the supplies to the cabinets in corresponding locations. This change was most evident in the genomics room, that was previously used for human cell culture and biochemistry, shown below. At this time, I’m still working on updating the microbial culture room, which is larger and contained many more bits and pieces to organize.

  • An image of a microbiology and genetics laboratory.

Most research labs use extremely specialized equipment and machinery. Some of this was made available to me immediately; when research labs are discontinued, ownership of equipment and consumable materials reverts back to the researcher’s home department. I needed to purchase some of the more research-specific equipment, using some of the funds allotted to me for this purpose. Buying equipment can be stressful, because it can be incredibly expensive, and you want to be sure you selected the machine brand and range of capabilities for what you might want to do over the next 5 – 10 years, at least.

Finally, you need to stock your lab with reagents and researchers, but both of these have been temporarily put on hold as of March 2020, as we do our part to reduce the transmission of the Covid-19 virus. Whenever it is safe to do so, I look forward to completing the updates to my spaces and opening them up for collaborative work.