International Day of Women and Girls in Science: Meet the Agents of Change at the Quadram

11th February 2022

For International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2022 (February 11), the UN is shining a light on ‘Agents of Change’, recognising women and girls’ role in accelerating scientific progress and equality.

In honour of the day, we’re celebrating some of the researchers and scientists at the Quadram Institute – past and present – leading change in our diets, our health, and the field of science.

Dr Ella May Barnes OBE

An original ‘Agent of Change’, Dr Ella May Barnes OBE’s research revolutionised our understanding of food safety. Dr Barnes joined the Institute of Food Research in 1966. In her previous role at the Low Temperature Research Station in Cambridge, she led important insights into the microbiology of food spoilage.

Dr Barnes’ studies of the gut microbes of poultry pioneered the ‘competitive exclusion’ principle, where ensuring the development of a healthy gut flora stops the growth of bacteria that cause disease, particularly Salmonella. Her research also helped highlight the risk of antimicrobial resistance from antibiotics in poultry feed and food preservation.

A group of gut bacteria (Barnesiella) is named in recognition of her work. In 1978, she was awarded the OBE for services to the poultry industry.

Today’s research into antibiotic resistance and food poisoning can be traced back to Dr Ella May Barnes’ discoveries. It’s almost impossible to quantify Dr Barnes’ impact on reducing cases of food poisoning. Dr Barnes also helped establish Norwich as a major centre for microbiology, and in 2021 the Ella May Barnes building on Norwich Research Park was named in her honour. At the Quadram Institute, we continue world-leading research into food safety, the gut microbiome, and antimicrobial resistance.

 

Prof Cynthia Whitchurch

Established in 2005, the Athena Swan Charter is a framework of 10 principles. The charter helps higher education institutions and research institutes support and transform policies, practices, action plans, and culture to achieve gender equality.

Prof Cynthia Whitchurch is an expert in bacterial lifestyles and is currently investigating various aspects of bacterial pathogenesis and biofilms. In 2016 Prof Whitchurch was the first woman in over 30 years to be awarded the David Syme Research Prize for best original research in biology in Australia, and in 2019 was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. Prof Whitchurch is also the Academic Lead for Athena Swan at the Quadram Institute.

Prof. Cynthia Whitchurch FAA“Preparing the Athena SWAN application was an excellent opportunity to understand how the institute is performing with regard to gender equity across all levels of staff and students. Importantly the application process also involved identifying areas for improvement and the development and approval of action plans to improve the support and opportunities for women in the institute to enable them to thrive and progress in their careers.”

Learn more about Athena SWAN.

 

Dr Priscilla Day-Walsh

Dr Priscilla Day-Walsh is a Research Scientist in the Kroon Group, focused on understanding how food bioactive compounds and gut microbiota interact to protect against cardio-metabolic diseases. Dr Day-Walsh is also the Quadram Institute Bioscience Representative for the prestigious Physiological Society, the largest network of physiologists in Europe. Dr Day-Walsh has been involved in a wide range of activities, including organising a symposium for the main Physiological Society Conference in 2021.

Through her role as a Representative, Dr Day-Walsh promotes equality in the field of science and inspires the next generation of scientists.

Priscilla Day“I am driven to carry out research that will improve the quality of life worldwide regardless of an individual’s background. As such, I strongly believe that equality and diversity are paramount in research and can influence scientific reasoning and outputs – and I summarise this in the “Being Black in Physiology: Diversity for Scientific Excellence” video, promoted on The Physiological Society’s YouTube channel.

I further contributed to the John Innes Centre “Women of the Future” 2020 discussions to aspiring scientists, where I and others discussed the importance of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and how to develop a scientific career where research ideas and values are respected.

I featured as a “Black physiologist role model” and contributed to a resource for “Aspiring Young Black Physiologists” competition that aimed to highlight the work and careers of black scientists in physiology. I am currently on the consultation panel at the Physiological Society where we aim to identify areas of key activities that will be incorporated into the equality, diversity, and inclusion strategy at the society.”

Dr Liangzi Zhang

The Food Databanks National Capability (FDNC) is responsible for curating and managing current data on the nutritional composition of foods eaten in the UK. The data underpins research into the links between diet and health. Dr Liangzi Zhang is an expert on dietary assessment methodology, with a focus on simplifications of existing methods in the national food consumption surveys, and the incorporation of new technologies.

Through her role as a Research Scientist for Food Databanks, Dr Zhang is helping the public and businesses understand the composition of a new generation of food.

“My work focuses on investigating the nutrient and bioactive contents of foods, which are closely related to the wellbeing of everyone. I make sure the data is accurate and up-to-date, and format it so it fits to different applications and platforms to reach more people.

My recent project involves estimating nutrient compositions in plant-based products and meal plans, to give an insight on their ability to fulfill the nutritional needs for the vegetarian and vegan population.”

 

Dr Maria Traka

Dr Maria Traka is the Deputy Head of the Food Databanks National Capability and a Group Leader at the Quadram Institute. She has an active interest in understanding the sources of interindividual variation in metabolic response to foods and the role of the gut microbiome.

Dr Traka has helped inspire thousands of people to learn about the gut microbiome by helping to develop the free FutureLearn Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) ‘The Human Microbiome’. Funded by EIT Food, the development of the training course was led by Prof. Luca Cocolin of the University of Turin, with Dr Traka from the Quadram Institute, Dr Marta Olivares from the Spanish National Research Council and Dr Anisha Wijeyesekera of the University of Reading acting as key ‘educators’.

Over three weeks, ‘The Human Microbiome’ enables people to discover what the microbiome is, how it changes throughout their lives and its role in human health. As of February 2022, the course has over 7,000 enrolments. As part of the FutureLearn programme, participants can opt-in to pay for a certificate of completion. The course is one of FutureLearn’s best sellers and has the highest satisfaction rate (correct as of Feb 2022). Due to its tremendous success, the course is now being translated into Spanish.

Maria Traka“The microbiome is proving to be crucial in all aspects of life and influences our health from the moment we are born. Our diet is one of the key factors shaping our microbiome but the information out there can be confusing. For this reason and I was delighted to lead part of the Human Microbiome MOOC (funded by EIT Food) and help the public understand how each of our food components interacts with our gut microbiome to achieve better nutrition and health.”

Find out more about ‘The Human Microbiome’

 

Prof Lindsay Hall

Prof. Lindsay Hall is a Group Leader at the Quadram Institute. Her research explores the influence of diet, host, and pathogens on the gut microbiota. She is currently a resident expert on Channel 5’s new series, ‘ You Are What You Eat’, hosted by Trisha Goddard and Dr Amir Khan. Through her feature on the new series, Prof Hall is helping participants and viewers worldwide understand the impact of diet on the gut microbiome and overall health.

Watch the latest series of You Are What You Eat on My5.

Working with researchers across the Quadram Institute and the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), Prof Hall also helped determined whether routine supplements of beneficial bacteria (i.e. probiotics) could enhance the bacterial composition and function of the gut microbiota and reduce necrotising enterocolitis (NEC).

NEC is a devastating bowel illness that can require emergency surgery and is sometimes difficult to diagnose. It is a leading cause of death in neonatal units. The earlier the birth, the more likely a baby will develop NEC. Up to 35% of babies who contract NEC die, and those who survive often develop health problems.

The collaborative research team found a lower incidence of NEC in preterm babies given routine probiotic supplements than a historical cohort that did not receive probiotics. The collaborative research team also found that probiotic supplementation supported the establishment of a Bifidobacterium-dominated gut microbiota, which increased the availability of milk sugars and displaced pathogenic bacteria.

Lindsay Hall“This work highlights how modulating the preterm gut microbiota with beneficial bacteria like Bifidobacterium can result in real improvements in health outcomes in these fragile and at-risk babies. This is one of the largest studies with preterm infants to date, and we were excited to find that matching the right probiotic Bifidobacterium – a strain that can digest breast milk – allowed it to persist in the gut and as a result significantly reduce potentially nasty bacteria that have been associated with serious infections.

We hope that our findings will help direct future clinical trials and practice and help clinicians and healthcare professionals make a rational choice when it comes to diet-microbe combinations, and ultimately help these at-risk preterm babies.”

 

Anne Jordan

The COVID-19 pandemic emphasised the importance of vaccinations in helping to protect ourselves and others against ill health. But how can we ensure the most effective immune response from vaccinations? PhD student Anne Jordan, based in Prof. Lindsay Hall’s group and working in collaboration with Prof. Simon Carding’s group, is investigating how the early life microbiota modulates vaccine responses. Anne presented her work at the Norwich Science Festival 2021, helping the general public better understand vaccine responses.

Anne Jordan at Norwich Science Festival 2021

“Vaccines are one of the best interventions we have in public health but there are still many vaccines that work well in one population and do rather badly in another.

I explore the immunomodulatory properties and products of specific Bifidobacterium strains, a key member of the early life gut microbiota, to potentially improve vaccine efficacy in those populations.”

Depending on the outcome of Anne’s project, we might be able to improve vaccine responses in children by supplementing with novel live biotherapeutics and boost the immune response against certain vaccines without the need for additional adjuvants.