We welcome our first guest blog from Pedro J. Torres, a grad student at the University of California San Diego in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences:
As a child, I collected caterpillars with the hope of seeing a butterfly develop, mixed different beverages to discover a new drink, and used a microscope to explore the otherwise invisible life of my backyard. However, it was my fascination with biofilms as an undergraduate student that inspired me to dig deeper into science and I found my true interest in understanding how complex microbial communities contribute to human health and disease.
As an undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), under the guidance of Dr. Scott Hodges, I was introduced to biological research and studied the genetic control of flower color. I quickly learned that experiments do not exist in a binary world and cannot be expected to follow suit with the initial hypothesis on every occasion. Nevertheless, the ability to apply my biology knowledge towards solving complex problems was exciting.
Shortly after graduating from UCSB, I joined the Microbiology Master’s program at San Diego State University (SDSU) where I became interested in microbial communities and host-pathogen interactions. Under the joint guidance of Drs. Scott Kelley and Kelly Doran, my thesis project focused on determining whether salivary microbial communities may provide useful biomarkers for early detection of pancreatic cancer. In the project’s inception sequence analysis was outsourced while I conducted the microbiology and molecular research. Soon I wanted to analyze my own data and quickly found that I enjoyed the challenge of bioinformatics. I started to read literature, ask questions, and before long was analyzing my own data. My desire to continue to delve into bioinformatics and molecular biology, as well as with the encouragement by people I admired, quickly made me realize that I wanted to drive my own projects and ask my own questions. As a first-generation college student, I was excited to further pursue my education and training in the Cell and Molecular Biology Joint Doctoral Program at UCSD/SDSU.
For my doctoral thesis, I chose to work in the labs of Dr. Scott Kelley at SDSU and Dr. Varykina Thackray at UCSD. Under their tutelage, I investigated the role of the gut microbiome in the metabolic disruption that often occurs in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), the most common endocrine disorder affecting ~10% of women worldwide. Dysregulation of the gut microbiome in PCOS is associated with the development of the PCOS metabolic phenotype. Understanding the role that the gut microbiome plays in the development of PCOS may expedite the development of novel treatment options for women with PCOS including pre-/pro- and postbiotic therapies. As I began my Ph.D. journey, I was introduced to the Center for Microbiome Innovation (CMI).
Through CMI sponsored events (seminars, conferences, etc.), I was able to connect with graduate students, postdocs, and professors across multiple disciplines who all shared a common interest in understanding and accelerating microbiome research. This was an amazing resource for my highly cross-disciplinary project, involving endocrinology, microbial metagenomics, mouse models, and bioinformatics. It was through the connections I made at the CMI that I was able to collaborate with a postdoc in Dr. Pieter Dorrestein’s lab interested in my project and apply metabolomics to identify gut microbiome compounds that might be essential for the development of PCOS.
I am very grateful to have received a CMI Graduate Fellowship for 2 years. The money and resources awarded to me were instrumental stepping stones towards my academic success. The CMI fellowship allowed me to spend more time conducting research instead of teaching and it helped me buy necessary supplies to continue my research unimpeded. Projects directly supported by the CMI led to a first-authored publication showing that exposure to a healthy gut microbiome could protect against the PCOS phenotype in a PCOS mouse model using a cohousing paradigm. We are currently building on this study by using metagenomics and metabolomics to characterize the effects of cohousing on the composition (strain level) and function of the gut microbiome. Identification of potential therapeutic targets and pathways will be followed up using various in vitro and in vivo techniques. Additional data collected from CMI supported projects were also used as preliminary data for Dr. Thackray’s now funded R01 grant.
We thank Pedro for taking the time to tell us about his journey, experience, and discoveries. We are proud to be a part of his story and support his research and look forward to our continued collaborations together in the future.