In High School, Biology and Biochemistry were always two of my favorite classes. I found so much joy in conducting experiments, documenting outcomes and discussing results. Thus, it is not too surprising that I decided to pursue a degree in a science, Nutritional Sciences. Knowing that through new findings I might be able to make changes in some peoples’ lives motivated me to pursue a career in research.
Early in my Graduate Career, I was a “bench” researcher conducting studies using animal models and laboratory methods. Sometimes, early career researchers in the “hard” sciences, who don’t necessarily interact with humans, can find it difficult to realistically evaluate the potential of translating findings into practice. Much too often, I lost track of how my findings from pre-clinical studies could be translated into practice and what the potential downstream impacts (e.g., improved health and care for people) could be.
The opportunity of being involved in clinical research has only furthered my excitement about research. Due to my fascination with the gut-brain interaction and my interest in nutrition and Autism, I decided to study this relationship for my PhD dissertation. As a short background, my research focuses on the potential moderating effect of dietary components on the gut-to-brain communication in children with Autism. The gastrointestinal tract is inhabited by millions of bacteria that live in a symbiont relationship with the human host. In recent years, researchers have discovered more and more that the gut bacteria can have effects on the host’s behavior and mental process. Increasing reports are published describing the difference in gut bacteria composition of individuals with Autism. However, results of these studies are not always consistent so not one clear trend is emerging yet. Additionally, almost 90% of children with Autism experience some kind of feeding related concern which could be due to food allergies, digestive problems or problematic eating behaviors. Because of these difficult eating behaviors, deficiencies in some nutrients were observed in children with Autism. Some nutrition intervention studies (e.g., gluten-free/casein-free) have explored the potential of diet to manage some symptoms of Autism with limited success. Because diet and gut bacteria have both independently been shown to have some effect on ASD symptomology and diet is known to be a major environmental factor shaping the composition of the gut bacteria, dietary intake and gut bacteria could potentially act in concert in influencing some symptoms of Autism. However, no studies have systematically investigated the effect of diet on the gut microbiota in children with Autism. Here is a link to a recent review that I have published on the topic: https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article-abstract/74/12/723/2655185?redirectedFrom=fulltext
Interacting with the parents in my study and hearing their stories has been so gratifying that I am now more than ever motivated to continue my career as a researcher and work towards bettering the care for patients. While I am absolutely fascinated by science, I also strongly believe that the ability to communicate science to the public is invaluable. My research thus far and the LEND experience provided me with an invaluable experience for educating me on how to best relate my interests and research with individuals from various backgrounds.