We are very proud of the diverse achievements of our alumni, some of which are highlighted in these pages. If you are a previous student we would be thrilled to hear from you. Please e-mail Melissa Lindberg with your latest news to share with your fellow alumni and inspire our current students. We also would like to keep you up to date on recent events in the BSD, and provide opportunities for you to interact with our current students.
To learn about our featured alumni, click on the respective name below.
Gene Hunt, PhD (Committee on Evolutionary Biology, 2003), won the 2012 Charles Schuchert Award, presented by The Paleontological Society. His work translates evolutionary processes acting on short time scales into the dynamics that are observable in the fossil record. His combination of detailed tracking of individual lineages with a new statistical analysis of previous studies was "game-changing," casting new light on the long-standing debate about punctuated equilibrium as a pervasive evolutionary pattern.
When asked to give the 30-thousand feet overview of her research, Suzanne said that she studies "why certain diseases like obesity, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease have increased so rapidly in the last fifty to a hundred years." This is certainly not due to genetics since humans simply do not evolve that quickly. While it was known that diet was associated with obesity and diabetes, she wanted to find out if diet impacted the microbiota of the gut, which in turn impacts inflammatory bowel disease. Armed with her nutritional background, Suzanne decided to investigate what happens with dietary manipulation of bacteria in mice. The findings showed that not all high fat diets are the same. It turns out that highly saturated fat diets elicit strong immune responses compared to polyunsaturated or low fat diets. She found that this was because saturated fats are emulsified differently, which in turn alters the composition of the biome of gut, selecting for certain bacteria to grow and not others. The bacteria growing most abundantly in this environment causes a specific immune response resulting in colitis—inflammation of the colon. This was the first study to show a mechanism for why certain diets induced colonic inflammation. This association had been shown previously in epidemiologic studies, but it was unclear why until Suzanne's studies. These findings were subsequently the focus of her dissertation, "Western diet-induced changes in host-microbe interactions: The emergence of pathobionts and development of colitis in genetically susceptible hosts".
Nervous that her novel findings would be scooped by other labs, and anxious to get her first paper published, Suzanne pushed to submit her publication during the earlier years of her Ph.D. based on her initial findings. However, her mentor decided to hold off until additional details of the study had been completed in order to submit a stronger piece of work to a journal of the highest impact factor. The gamble paid off when on the first day of her postdoctoral position at Harvard, Suzanne received the news that her paper had been published in Nature. Given the brevity of Nature papers, Suzanne joked wryly how odd it was that "you get three pages to condense the last five years of your life." However, the impact of her studies was immediate. Suzanne reflected that the most gratifying part of publishing her research, and what really made her love science was "seeing how it affected the way other people ran their experiments and thought about science." Following her publication, other editorials expounded on her study's significance and contribution to the field, as well as the potential translation to therapeutic practices.
In the transition between Ph.D. studies and postdoctoral studies, Suzanne started interviewing for postdoctoral positions about a year and a half before graduating. She had kept in contact with several professors from outside institutions who had given seminars at her department. All three professors she eventually interviewed with were such contacts, and one of those interviews resulted in her current postdoctoral position at Harvard. Given her own successful obtainment of a postdoctoral position, Suzanne earnestly encourages current graduate students to nurture contacts with visiting professors who interest you with their research and keep in touch with them! Looking to the future, Suzanne is working hard to further pursue the academic path, as well as keeping an open mind towards alternate career opportunities such as working with small-company start-ups in nutrition-related fields. Given her accomplishments so far, there is no doubt that Suzanne will continue to make many more wonderful contributions to the field! --Chenan Zhang