Emma Allen-Vercoe

Tell us about yourself

I was born and educated in (and around) London, UK. In 2001, on a hunch that it was the right thing to do, my husband, baby daughter and I immigrated to Canada, becoming citizens in 2007. We've never looked back. I now am mom to 2 active girls. I love gardening and writing, and going for long, rambling walks with my dogs during which I can let my mind wander off to all sorts of interesting places.

What is your research about?

I work on poop, specifically the multitudes of microbes that live inside poop. That doesn't sound very glamorous, but we now understand that these microbes have a fundamental role in our health and well-being; we have been very slow to realize this, and our current western lifestyle choices can be hostile to our microbes, in extreme cases causing disease. In my lab we are studying how the hundreds of species of microbes in poop - both human and animal - interact to help maintain health. We are also trying to understand what can go wrong when these microbes are damaged, and how we can fix this damage by using the microbes themselves as novel 'drugs'.

What have you enjoyed the most about your research?

The most fun part about my research is that we are working in an area that has an enormous potential to benefit medical practice, and we are in a position where we are among the pioneers of this field. So that means that we are constantly in a state of eye-opening, mind-bending discovery, which is tremendously exciting. For example, my group has discovered a range of novel bacterial species, as well as remarkable ways that gut microbes affect our bodies and each other.

What have you found most challenging about your research?

Some of the experiments we do take weeks of careful planning and set-up, and weeks of running, followed by months of analysis, only to find results we didn't expect and that we cannot explain. Science is a continual drive to find the answers to difficult questions but it's important to be objective and to sometimes allow the results to lead you in directions you never expected. Sometimes, the answers you are led to are frustrating because they don't make sense. The challenge lies in coming up with new angles to examine a problem from, and in recognizing that some of the best scientific experiments take the most time and effort.

How has your research experience influenced your career path?

I wasn't always engaged in academic research as I worked for the UK government as a scientist for a number of years before I came to Canada. Now, as an academic, I can say that I much prefer the freedom of being able to run my own research program, where it is me who calls the shots on how the work should proceed. I do plan to continue on this research path for some time to come, although I recently co-founded a spin-off company based on some of my research, which, if successful, may change some of my future research goals towards translating some of our discovery science to develop new medical and veterinary treatment modalities.

How has your research impacted the world?

When I started my independent career, the thinking at the time was that most of the microbes in the human gut were 'unculturable', and thus almost impossible to study. I rejected this idea because nature was doing a fine job of culturing these microbes. Instead, I looked to mimic nature, and we created the 'Robogut' as a life-support system for microbes, to allow culture of the microbes in the laboratory, and this worked so well that we have now opened up an entire new window through which to view these previously understudied critters. With our new ability to culture these microbes, we have started to see how we might be able to use them as medicine, i.e. developing selected microbes to rebalance gut ecosystems which have been damaged by disease or lifestyle choices. We are among the first scientists to develop what we call 'microbial ecosystem therapeutics' as a completely novel paradigm in medicine, which has the potential to save many lives.

What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?

We are just at the beginning of understanding how microbes interact with each other to benefit their hosts (us), and we also think that our gut microbial communities, in particular, actually communicate with us using a chemical language made of small molecules. But right now we don't have a good understanding of this microbial language at all. One of the biggest breakthroughs to come will be the deciphering of this chemical language, which will allow us to clearly see how our microbes influence health, and will also enable whole classes of novel drugs to be developed to treat a great many diseases.

What motivates you to do research?

I knew I wanted to be a scientist from the time I was old enough to know what science was. But I had set my heart on being an astrophysicist. And it turned out that I absolutely suck at advanced math. I turned to biochemistry as an alternative option, but can honestly say I hated it. In fact, I almost dropped out until a fortuitous placement in a microbiology lab in my BSc final year opened me up to an entire new world I had previously known nothing about. All of a sudden I found my passion, and with that passion my need to strive for success kicked in. I was lucky to have had an incredible mentor for this placement who lit a fire in me and supported my ongoing graduate degree career path.

Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment

It sounds crazily obvious, but my Eureka! moment was in realizing that the mouth and the gut are connected, and that microbes that are problematic in the mouth may also cause problems further down in the gut. This led me on a path to studying what was then a little-known oral microbe called Fusobacterium nucleatum. To cut a long story short, we now know that this obscure microbe not only is associated with gut inflammation in inflammatory Bowel Disease, but may also be a cause of colorectal cancer, too.

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