(Or Microbes and Matisse)

Genevieve Habert stared at the abstract paper cutout with a sense of unease. Something was off about Henri Matisse’s Le Bateau (1953). Habert, a New York stockbroker and former Parisienne, was an admirer of the late French artist. Along with thousands of art fans and critics, Habert had visited the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) to view an exhibition featuring the final pieces of Matisse (1869-1954). Le Bateau portrayed a solitary boat and its reflection gliding over violet waters. But something wasn’t quite right…
Have you spotted the reason?
….Why would the artist portray the reflection as more intricate than the actual boat? Habert puzzled over the piece and arrived at a startling conclusion. The MOMA had inadvertently hung Le Bateau upside-down. Although Habert’s assertion was initially dismissed by MOMA staff, she persisted in her claim and obtained evidence that the work was hanging the wrong direction. The NY Times ran an article about Le Bateau and 47 days after Le Bateau’s debut, the MOMA turned the painting right-side up.*
I’m a fan of art museums and enjoyed researching the history of Le Bateau and Genevieve Habert. When reading the story, I was struck by the analogies linking Le Bateau with the development and concept of gut microbiota-brain interactions. (HINT: sometimes we realize that while we’ve focused on the top we should take a second look at what is on [or in] the bottom!) This past year, our lab outlined several key hallmarks of the gut microbiota-brain axis.** Over the next two months, Skope articles will examine these hallmarks and the recent science stories that reflect these gut-brain interactions.
Stayed tuned for next week’s article on microglia.
Happy Exploring
Sources and Further Reading:



–Can we get back to talking about some science?




Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18700756 

This is Henri Matisse’s 1953 Le Bateau. This afternoon I am giving a talk at UBC on perception imagination, and microbial studies. To learn about what a paper cutout from the 18th century has to do with the gut microbiota-brain axis, stay tuned for this weekend’s post!





(Or, Let’s Vote–Even if you live abroad!)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock on Ganymede,* you are probably already worn out from the continuous coverage of the US presidential campaign. Are you planning to vote? Awesome! Here’s a quick post on the importance of voting (even if you won’t be in the US this November).

Voting allows citizens to express their voice in the government and shape the future. Unfortunately, many people don’t participate in the democratic process. The Bipartisan Policy Center reported that less than 60% of US citizens voted in the 2012 presidential election. For the past 240 years, Americans have fought and championed for their right to vote…and we have come a long way! Some cases in point–there are women alive that are older than their right to vote. Many minorities have also struggled against oppressive voting laws. In 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act to counter racial voting laws (check out an example of a “literacy” test here: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2013/06/28/voting_rights_and_the_supreme_court_the_impossible_literacy_test_louisiana.html).

The first time I was able to vote for the federal election was 2012. I was living in South America at the time, so I mailed in my ballot! This year, I will be in Canada. Even if you won’t be in US, voting is a relatively simple process. Visit the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) website (www.fvap.gov) to get started and learn about your state’s voting requirements!

Some suggestions:

  1. Are you registered to vote? Each state has slightly different requirements and deadlines. If you aren’t registered, there’s a chance that you can register online (see the National Conference of State Legislatures http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/electronic-or-online-voter-registration.aspx#Table%20of%20states%20w/ovr)
  2. Know the last four digits of you SSN and have your driver’s license ready
  3. You will need access to a printer


It’s really that simple!

This year I am a teaching assistant for a course on science writing, philosophy, and communication. During the first class, the students reflect on the interface of science and society. Science does not exist in a vacuum. Research funding, health policy, natural resource management, even the very questions researchers develop are influenced by society. Take some time to learn each candidate’s position on scientific issues, November is coming!

Happy voting 🙂


whhajournal280046 White House Historical Association

President Theodore Roosevelt at Yosemite National Park. During his presidency, this conservationist leader helped establish five national parks and 150 national forests!


*one of Jupiter’s multiple moons, discovered by Galileo, only moon that we know has a magnetic field, larger than the planet Mercury, AKA a pretty cool moon! You would also be very cool if you were living in Ganymede (http://theplanets.org/ganymede/)


(Or, some thoughts on science and communication)

I’ve finished my first year of PhD studies! Upcoming adventures for  Grad Year 2  include a thesis committee meeting, new TA responsibilities, work on another Review, comprehensive exams, and more opportunities to participate in science communication! I’ve wanted to blog about my graduate application process for awhile. Here are some of my thoughts about the interview process (from an introvert perspective). Feel free to discuss/post comments below!


As evidenced from the title, I am an introvert (Myers-Briggs type consistently INTJ: The Scientist/Architect*). I’m absolutely content to enjoy a quiet supper and good book** after returning home from the lab. Although I look forward to research retreats, conferences, and scientific workshops; networking can be draining. When I received the schedule for my first graduate school interview, I described the event as an “introvert’s nightmare”. In actuality, my interview process was an amazing experience. I had the chance to visit amazing laboratory facilities, meet leading researchers, and explore new cities. While these events vary by university, I was typically interviewed by 10-20 researchers, graduate students, or post-doctoral fellows during each visit. Here are some tips for surviving graduate school interviews.***

  1. Be prepared and be yourself: The quality (not the quantity) of your conversation will impress research faculty. Be prepared to clearly and concisely state why you are interested in program X, the research in X lab, and why you will make a strong addition to X department. Be familiar with the research and publications of the labs you visit and be prepared to share what you would be interested to study during graduate school. Interviewers often ask about previous lab experience. Practice short (30 second) and longer (2 minute) elevator pitches of your undergraduate research projects. Remember to describe why your research matters and how these experiences prepared you for X research. Also, be prepared to discuss your future career plans (although it’s ok to be unsure!). But you also need to…
  2. Ask questions: Ask (intelligent questions) about their research!! Learn about course and teaching requirements, publication and funding opportunities, program length, and your responsibilities. If you are meeting with a student ask what they like the best and what they dislike the most about the lab/graduate program.
  3. Communication doesn’t always involve talking: Dress and demeanor (friendly, professional, and enthusiastic) also communicate interest in graduate research. Don’t dress in jeans and sneakers, but there is usually no need to wear a suit and tie–think business casual. Wear comfortable shoes (avoid heels) to walk around campus. I suggest close-toed shoes if you intend to visit lab spaces. In addition, check the weather ahead of time in case you need an umbrella or coat.
  4. Introverts, it’s ok to take a break: Interview days are often packed with campus tours, social events, lab talks, and more! Participate in the events, but also look for spaces to decompress. Is there time before interviews to walk around the campus? Is there a mid-day break? If so, it is ok to take the opportunity to re-charge and re-focus before returning to the interview process. Lastly…
  5. Don’t Stress! The fact that you were offered an interview is a good sign! Remember, you are also interviewing the university. Is this program a good fit for you? Plan to get a good night of sleep before the interview/s and don’t overanalyze conversations afterwards. Stay in the moment and enjoy the journey.

Are any of you preparing for interviews this fall? Happy adventures everyone!

*Sometimes referred to as the Mastermind personality 😉 What’s your type? https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test

** currently reading Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (and listening to Lin-Manuel’s glorious musical!) –thanks Ray!

***based on my experience interviewing at Microbiology programs in North America





(Or, My Latest Book Recommendation)

Last Autumn I wrote an article entitled “Amaze-On Microbiota” (https://theskope.com/2015/09/07/amaze-on-microbiota/). Amaze-On discussed the hygiene hypothesis theory, which posits that the obsession with over-sanitation may actually harm our health. Humans don’t exist as a solo entity. Instead, as I hope you’ve realized, we are meta-organisms that thrive alongside (and due to) our trillions of microorganisms.  The human gut microbiota is one of the most diverse microbial populations found in nature. Altering this vibrant community impacts our digestive, immune, and neural health. How do antibiotics, putative probiotics, diet, and lifestyle impact the human microbiota? How can we maintain a healthy microbiota, but also eradicate microbial pathogens?

How clean is too clean?

Dr. B. Brett Finlay (my mentor) and Dr. Marie-Claire Arrieta (a new assistant professor at University of Calgary) wrote a phenomenal book, Let Them Eat Dirt, that explores these questions and provides practical steps to protect your family’s health. If you want to learn more about gut microbes and the crucial impact of the human microbiota in development, read LTED!

For more information see: http://letthemeatdirt.com 


Alaskan Adventures

(Or More Posts to Come after the Holiday Hiatus)

Hello everyone! I hope that you are enjoying a beautiful July. I wanted to share an update on my graduate school progress: classes are finished, a new teaching assistantship starts this September, and research continues!

I’ve recently returned from a very rejuvenating (and nearly internet-free) family vacation. My family went somewhere we always wanted to go–ALASKA! We enjoyed glaciers near Juneau, berry-picking in Sitka, kayaking in Ketchikan, and, on our way back, I visited Vancouver Island for the first time. More microbiome stories to follow this upcoming week. Stay tuned! How’s your summer?



(Or Reflections from Washington, Washington)

Last weekend I spent a day in Seattle, Washington. This marked the first time I’ve visited downtown Seattle since I arrived in Vancouver (yikes! I thought I would visit the US more). Our group travelled south to watch a baseball game as an early farewell celebration for an amazing labmate (come back and visit O!). Somewhat sadly, the home team lost to the Texas Rangers, but it was still an entertaining, sunshine-filled afternoon. After the game, we meandered through the Pike Place Market and I enjoyed a summer smoothie and gyro (not typical Seattle fare, although we did play count-the-Starbucks on the way back).


In many ways, it was the quintessential American Sunday afternoon—baseball game, players in blue and white, and a rendition of “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch. We even listened to a podcast on American history and politics as we travelled to the stadium.

Recently, a historical microbiome moment occurred in Washington DC. In case you haven’t heard, President Barack Obama unveiled the National Microbiome Initiative (NMI). Check out the White House Announcement here (https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/documents/OSTP%20National%20Microbiome%20Initiative%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf). The NMI follows a nationwide call to action for microbiome research issued earlier this year. In 2016/7, US Federal agencies will invest $121 million dollars in interdisciplinary, multi-ecosystem microbiome studies. Moreover, the NMI announcement also included some serious microbiome funding from academia, industry, and private sectors, including…

(1) $12 million for the Center for Microbiome Innovation (UC San Diego)

(2) A public microbiome data bank from One Codex

(3) $100 million from the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation

While hundreds of millions of governmental dollars have already been invested in microbiome research (think the 2007 Human Microbiome Project, NIH-funded and NSF-funded research), the NMI highlights both the continued importance and interest of microbiome research. Proposed projects range from examining oceanic microbes to the study of extraterrestrial microbes in the solar system, human microbiome research and examination of plant-microbe interactions, development of computational tools and fostering of public knowledge. The future is bright with research possibilities. Let’s explore!

PS: Thanks A for transport and E for planning!