The gut microbiome is the community of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms that live in the human digestive system – and a very big deal in terms of our ability to fight disease.
“The gut microbiome is the most important scientific discovery for human healthcare in recent decades,” said James Kinross, a microbiome scientist and surgeon at Imperial College London, in a July 2021 article in The Guardian. “It’s a vital organ in your body and you need to look after it,” noted Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist at King’s College London, in the same piece. “If you do that, it will look after you.”
“We discovered it – or rediscovered it – in the age of genetic sequencing less than 15 years ago. The only organ which is bigger is the liver,” Kinross added, while also admitting, “We don’t really know how it works.”
Hana Olof ’22 intends to become one of the scientists who unlocks the mysteries of the gut microbiome and harnesses its potentially considerable impact. The biology major and psychology minor first learned about the investigation of gut health when she took a microbiology class at Hollins with Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Science Mary Jane Carmichael.
“We were encouraged to read recent articles in that field and were assigned a weekly article review. Through that, I discovered the gut microbiome,” Olof said. “It introduced me to a whole new different area of study, and since then I’ve been reading more and more about it. I’m so fascinated with it. I didn’t realize gut microbes were associated with different diseases, or that you could also use them to reduce the effect of diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome.”
Investigating the gut microbiome has solidified Olof’s burgeoning interest in biomedical research. “It has been really helpful to work with the different faculty in the biology department. My classes and lab experiences have trained me on how to do research, prepare lab reports, and analyze data. They create an environment where asking questions is encouraged.”
Olof said that foundation has been invaluable in the experiences she’s enjoyed as an undergraduate beyond the classroom. In the summer of 2020, she participated in an internship through Eastern Virginia Medical School and sponsored by the Hollins biology department where she worked with a team to develop a hypothetical treatment for COVID-19. The project was conducted entirely online with video technology due to the pandemic. Drawing on her psychology minor, she was awarded a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship the following year and conducted research on the topic of “The Influence of Prior Suspect Familiarity on Cross-Race Effect.” This March, Olof and Soha Munir ’23 presented a poster on the topic at the 68th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Psychological Association.
“Their work was motivated by the large number of wrongful convictions that have been due to the cross-race effect, which is the finding that witnesses to a crime are worse at correctly identifying a suspect of a different race than their own,” Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology Alex Wooten explained. “This has unfortunately led to a disproportionate amount of innocent Black individuals being falsely identified.”
Wooten noted that Olof and Munir’s research is significant in that it establishes that “the cross-race effect also applies to situations where the suspect is casually familiar, which has yet to be shown before. The findings suggest that just because an eyewitness says they are familiar with a suspect following a crime does not guarantee they will make an accurate identification, particularly when the suspect is of a different race.”
“I want to thank the psychology department and Dr. Wooten for all the valuable skills I learned,” Olof stated. “The fellowship really helped me to see the steps that go into research design.”
Engaging in those remote projects served her well during the 2021 January Short Term, when she completed an internship at the Atlanta Botanical Garden remotely from her home country of Ethiopia. “I didn’t have a lot of experience in botanicals but it was a really amazing experience to work with them because they helped me to learn about the conservation of plants and grow my skills at analyzing data.” Olof added that the Garden staff graciously accommodated her circumstance working from home. “They were kind enough to factor in the time difference. So, instead of meeting in the morning, we would meet in the evening to talk about what we did throughout the day.” She was also challenged by less-than-reliable internet service, “and there were times when I had to go to different places to get a connection. But in the end it worked out well.”
For the 2022 January Short Term, Olof and two other Hollins students completed a Signature Internship with San Antonio-based Vascular Perfusion Solutions (VPS), which is developing ways to help transplanted organs last longer outside of the body. “We observed procedures related to the preservation of hearts for transplantations,” she explained. “Currently, the preservation time is only four hours and their aim is to extend that so that people in distant locations can have more of an opportunity for organ transplantation.”
Olof said the opportunity for her and her fellow students “really taught us a lot. This is when I really appreciated what I learned at Hollins. We already had so many experiences writing articles and so we were asked to edit some of VPS’s articles before they were published. We analyzed a lot of data for them as well, and our experiences through our different biology classes enabled us to do that accurately.” Because of Hollins biology department’s emphasis on query and examination, Olof was comfortable initiating a dialogue anytime she came across something she didn’t understand, and that confidence enabled her to call attention to an error she found during her VPS data analysis.
Olof’s search for the right graduate school to further her study of the gut microbiome and the immune system came to fruition when she learned of a faculty member at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg who is focusing on that area. “I reached out and said I’d really like to work with her,” Olof recalled. “She called me for an interview, we talked more, and then I got accepted to her lab and to the university.” Olof will begin her two-year master’s degree program in September and can continue at the university if she decides to go on to earn her doctorate. “They offered me an opportunity to pursue my Ph.D. work there, and if I do that then there’s a potential for me to finish it faster than the typical six years because they would take my master’s degree into account.” If Olof chooses to enter the workforce after completing her master’s degree, “they have connections with industrial companies that focus on gut microbes.”
Olof is excited about the possibilities offered by gut microbiome research. “Nowadays there are many conditions that don’t respond to the traditional method of treatment – there are so many antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Plus, in developing nations such as my home country of Ethiopia, there is no easy access to medications. So, this idea of treating disease through dietary modification or reducing disease by taking a prebiotic feels very promising to me. And if we could find innovative treatments that won’t have as many side effects on people as drugs do, I feel like that would also be a great thing to pursue.”