Inquiry. Discovery. Progress.
My research interests and experiences span not only microbiology and translational medicine, but also scholarship that centers equity as a critical pillar of a thriving scientific training environment.
Can host-microbiome-environment relationships inform more precise therapeutic approaches to chronic disease?
I am fascinated by the human microbiome, its variation across populations, and its role in health and disease. Microorganisms inhabit nearly every environment on Earth — they are critical components of many ecosystems, but there is so much we don’t yet know about how they interact. The human microbiome has been implicated in several chronic diseases and disorders, some of which have a disproportionate impact across populations. The microbiome is tightly linked to the immune system, yet much remains unknown about what governs microbial-immune interactions in the body, how they change over time, and how they adapt to changing conditions and/or accumulated exposures.
Microbial-Immune Relationships in Adult Asthma
Currently, my research focuses on understanding how the microbiome and the immune system are involved in the heterogeneity of adult asthma. Asthma is a chronic disease primarily featuring airway inflammation. People with asthma experience a sustained increase in airway inflammation that can be further pronounced during an exacerbation. Asthma is burdensome on both patients and communities- especially in marginalized populations. There is mounting evidence of disparities in prevalence, risk factors, access to care, and morbidity. The primary long-term treatments for asthma are not effective in all patients and we lack robust biomarkers that can be used to pinpoint underlying pathobiology. More precise diagnostic and therapeutic tools are urgently needed to better serve the patient population.
The microbiome (the collection of microorganisms and their genes that inhabit a particular niche) has been implicated in many chronic inflammatory diseases and we know that is linked to processes critical to host immune development and homeostasis, epithelial barriers, metabolism, and response to the environment. However, key questions remain:
What are the forces involved in controlling the replication, death, and movement of microbes in the body?
How does the human microbiome organize into communities? How does it interact with other systems, like the immune system and built environment?
How do the factors that shape the host ecosystem (diet, exposure to stress, exercise, medications, other illnesses, etc.) impact the nature of microbial-immune relationships? the ability of our resident microbes to survive?
What are the local trans-kingdom (bacteria -> viruses -> fungal) interactions at play in the human microbiome? Do they influence disease states?
Can we identify patterns of interactions that clarify differences underlying disease processes from person to person?
Can we harness this knowledge to better predict effective treatment strategies?
I use bioinformatics and multi-omics approaches to ask these and other questions of the respiratory and gut microbiomes in the context of asthma through several projects and collaborations. I am particularly interested in the application of systems-based frameworks and biopsychosocial models to integrate ‘omics’ data with host data for a more complete view of host-environment-microbiome relationships in this context.
Impact of Structural Racism on the Human Microbiome and Immunity
The recent declaration of racism as a public health crisis is supported by mounting evidence of disparities in incidence, prevalence, the experience of healthcare, and outcomes of several diseases across historically marginalized populations, including asthma. According to 2010 data, Black American children are 4 times more likely to die from asthma than white American children. Historically, scientific inquiry to explain health disparities has been driven by assumptions rooted in biological determinism, yet this strategy has failed to explain and eliminate disparities and ignores the impact of racism on biological, environmental, and social factors at play in disease and the way in which these factors converge at the individual and population level. I will define the biological consequences of systemic racism on the microbiome and immunity using innovative, collaborative, and interdisciplinary approaches. This work is critical to the advancement of health equity.
Broadening Participation in Academic Biomedicine
Despite the increasing diversity of undergraduate and graduate trainees in the United States, many historically marginalized groups remain underrepresented among the nation’s tenure-track faculty and investigators. Evidence suggests that this disparity is not driven by an inadequate amount of interest or talent, but rather institutional inequity that inhibits access to career development and opportunity. As part of multi-disciplinary collaborations, I am also working on projects that aim to drive transformation in training environments, recruitment, and retention so that we can build structures that adequately support future generations of scientists.
The Microbiome in Mouse Models of IBD
Crohn’s Disease (CD) and Ulcerative Colitis (UC), collectively known as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), are chronic inflammatory diseases that greatly reduce the quality of life while increasing the risk of developing colorectal cancer. The focus of my graduate work was to study the gut microbiome of mice lacking tumor necrosis factor (TNF)- an inflammatory mediator known to be active in IBD – during Crohn’s-like colitis. We were also interested in the impact of biological factors like age and sex on the variability of the mouse gut microbiome and the implications for research.
Bacteriophage biology is a rapidly advancing field. During my undergraduate training, I isolated, characterized, and annotated the genome of a novel phage, Mycobacteriophage Anaya, and conducted research on phage lysogeny and phage-host interactions in termite guts.