Dr. Ruairi C. Robertson
Meet Dr. Ruairi C. Robertson, Sir Henry Wellcome Research Fellow at the Blizard Institute, who talks about his fascinating research into the human gut microbiome.
Please could you tell us a bit about your research into intestinal microbiomes?
My research examines the human gut microbiome. This is a relatively new field of science that studies all of the bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes living in the human body. The classical understanding of microbes is their role in infectious diseases, however we all have trillions of 'healthy' microbes living on us and in us that actually protect us from disease, including both chronic disease and infectious diseases. In particular, I am interested in mothers' and infants' gut microbiomes. At birth, newborns are seeded with an inoculum of microbes from their mother, which expands throughout childhood to form a complex microbiome. Exciting research, including our own, is showing that if this microbial development is disrupted in early life, for example by inadequate nutrition or antibiotic exposure, this may have long term effects on child health. https://ruairirobertson.com/research
Your current work in sub-Saharan Africa is investigating how the gut microbiome might be linked to child malnutrition. Could you tell us a little more about that?
Child undernutrition is still a major global health burden. 1 in 4 children around the world are chronically undernourished, whilst 47 million children are acutely malnourished. Although child mortality is declining around the world, undernutrition prevents a child from thriving and is associated with poor cognitive development and increased chronic health risks in later life. Intruigingly, nutritional interventions only recover about 20% of chronic undernutrition and 60% of acute undernutrition, suggesting that other biological factors are at play. My work is examining whether a disrupted gut microbiome is preventing children from growing. I am studying the gut microbiome of hundreds of children in Zimbabwe and Zambia whom have either chronic or severe acute malnutrition. By looking at the composition and function of their gut microbiome in early life as well as metabolites in their blood and urine, I am examining how the gut microbiome in children affects the various processes that allows them to grow.
You also do lots of public engagement and science communication work through podcasts, TV and public talks. Why do you think that this is important for scientists to engage in?
I believe that everyone can be excited by science, but often it isn't taught in an engaging way. As scientists, we are lucky to be at the forefront of discovery about how the human body and the world works. Most of the time, this is funded by tax-payers money, therefore it is our duty to communicate our findings to the world. I think it is also important to engage people in science to help them understand how impactful it is on their lives and how it can make the world a better place. The COVID pandemic has shown us the critical importance of science for human health and I believe that the public have a greater appreciation for scientists now. If we can harness that enthusiasm for science to other areas of human disease, climate change and other major global challenges, we will be able to speed up our ability to confront those challenges. I enjoy communicating my science with the public and have done this through TV/radio, social media, public talks and recently with a podcast (https://ruairirobertson.podbean.com/) where I interview some of the world's leading researchers in the field of the human microbiome.
What made you want to specialise in this area, and what advice would you give to students wishing to follow in your footsteps?
I was always interested in food and studied Human Nutrition as an undergraduate degree. I was fascinated by how different nutrients affect the human body to either contribute to or prevent human disease. I began a PhD and was lucky enought to be based in a research institute (APC Microbiome Ireland, University College Cork) whom had experts in the gut microbiome just as the field was gaining traction. To be honest, I wasn't interested in microbes at the beginning of my PhD but begun to understand their importance in human physiology and nutrition and began to investigate it further in my research. I have been riding the microbiome wave ever since and am lucky to be conducting some exciting research at a time when my research field is in the interests of the public and other scientists. My advice for students is to confront the scientific/career challenges that scare you. I was apprehensive about conducting a PhD, about learning new laboratory techniques or emailing well-known scientists for advice. However, pushing past these fears is the best way to learn and gain new experiences that will stand to you through the rest of your life and career and this often results in exciting new opportunities.