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Researchers from around the world gathered at Cornell University, Aug. 6-10, 2018, for “Our Microbes, Our Global Health,” a week-long meeting with workshops and a symposium that highlighted human microbiome research and strengthened ties between the global research community.
Researchers from over a dozen countries, including Brazil, China, India, Pakistan and South Africa participated in the workshops, which focused on the intersection between human microbiome research and global health issues such as infectious diseases, antibiotic resistance, nutrition and food security. The week included hands-on activities and social events before culminating in a day-long symposium.
The meeting was organized by Ilana Brito, assistant professor and Mong Family Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow in the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering, who was inspired to host it after receiving a Gates Foundation grant to study antibiotic-resistance genes in human microbiomes throughout the world. The research requires Brito to collaborate with scientists from almost every continent.
“It can be cumbersome,” said Brito, noting international research requires building trust across long distances and different languages, as well as other logistical barriers.
“But then I had the realization that if I were to do that, build these collaborations in all of these different countries individually, then I would be missing a huge opportunity that was staring me in the face. Instead of building these individual collaborations, the idea that I had was I could basically bring everyone here to Cornell to build something that was greater than the sum of its parts,” said Brito.
And that’s exactly what the “Our Microbes, Our Global Health” meeting achieved, according to its participants. Olga Garcia, a professor at Universidad Autonoma de Queretaro, participated in the symposium where she presented her research on microbiota, obesity and metabolic disorders in children from rural Mexico.
“Coming to this meeting gives us exposure so other people know what research we’re doing in our countries,” said Garcia, “because sometimes they think that we don’t have the infrastructure or capacity, both human and physical, for doing it. That is very important for us.”
As the only faculty member at her university conducting microbe-related research, she said finding collaborators is key.
“Aside from my work with Ilana, now I have several projects and ideas with people from Colombia and Guatemala that came out of this week,” said Garcia. “We’ve also been talking about several methods and techniques that are going to help me. That has been incredible.”
Brito said the meeting was also successful in stimulating interest in microbiome research across Cornell, with participants coming from Weill Cornell Medicine, the College of Veterinary Medicine, the College of Agriculture and Life Science, and from multiple Cornell Engineering schools.
“This meeting embodies the radical collaboration ideas that are being promoted on campus. I think it’s proof that this topic is really cross cutting and salient to people at Cornell,” said Brito, who added that the meeting was supported by university entities such as Global Cornell, the Atkinson Center, the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, the Cornell Institute of Host-Microbes Interactions and Disease, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.
As part of the effort to unite researchers, Brito sought to include undergraduate students as well. For some of them, it was their first introduction to global health topics through the lens of the microbiome.
Prior to the week-long meeting, Brito, along with Ana Porras, a postdoctoral associate in her lab, and Abi Anima, an undergraduate intern, helped establish a summer-long Microbiome Ambassador Program in which students learned about research concepts, ethics and logistics. The program included discussions with global partners and then culminated in the students meeting those people at the “Our Microbes, Our Global Health” meeting.
Noel Solomons, executive and scientific director of the Center for Studies of Sensory Impairment, Aging and Metabolism, said the inclusion of students was an important aspect of the meeting.
“Mentoring is as important to the success of science as the tools that are in the hands of the scientists,” said Solomons. “Science will only move forward with opening the barriers to participation in every direction and every dimension, and that includes students and groups across the world.”
Brito said she expects the relationships that were formed during the meeting to continue to strengthen, and that several research exchanges and partnerships between participants are moving forward, all at a critical time.
“Microbiome science is at a very exciting moment today,” said Brito, “and it’s poised to make significant improvements to understanding conditions such as malnutrition, obesity and vaccine efficacy. We’ve made large discoveries in the last few years and it’s a very opportune time to look at topics of global health.”