Exploring Host-Microbe Interactions in Health and Disease

Exploring Host-Microbe Interactions in Health and Disease

Mariana Xavier Byndloss, DVM, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She is also a Freeman Hrabowski Scholar at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. As a recipient of the Early-Career Investigator Award, Byndloss has demonstrated innovative discoveries that have become an important focus in inflammatory diseases, as well as her commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) activities within and outside Vanderbilt. 

Can you briefly discuss your background and what you do in your current role?

Byndloss: I received a DVM and a PhD from Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil, where I am originally from. After completing my postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Davis, I started my lab in the Department of Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in 2018. In my role, I study how disruption in beneficial microbiota-intestine epithelium metabolic interactions increases the risk of infectious gastroenteritis by Salmonella Typhimurium and noncommunicable diseases, namely obesity and obesity-associated cardiovascular disease and colon cancer. Additionally, I mentor undergraduate and graduate students, as well as postdoctoral scholars, with the goal of training the next generation of diverse scientists. 

When did you decide to become a scientist? Were you inspired by someone (or something)?

Byndloss: I decided to become a scientist during high school, after learning about genetics, evolution, and physiology in Biology class. I was inspired by my middle sister, who was going to veterinary school. She convinced me to also apply to veterinary school so I could merge my interest in research and animal biology. During vet school, I started to do research in the laboratory of Renato Lima Santos, DVM, PhD, who introduced me to the fields of pathology, microbiology, and pathogenesis of infectious diseases and solidified my interest in having a career understanding how host-microbe interactions shape health and disease. 

Your nomination includes the research you’ve conducted and published. What drew you to this field of research? What do you wish to achieve with your research?

Byndloss: During vet school, I became fascinated by how bacteria, small unicellular organisms, could have such an impact on human health and disease. The development of the microbiome field provided the tools to allow me to merge my interests in microbiology and pathology and study how microbial communities (and their products) module host function, with a specific focus on the intestinal epithelium. My research aims to establish new paradigms toward understanding how the disruption of beneficial metabolic interactions between the host and the gut microbiota drives human disease. 

What discovery are you most proud of and how did you feel when you made that discovery?

Byndloss: The discovery I am most proud of is a recent one. We found that the microbes that dominate the small intestine microbiota during early life prevent obesity by producing metabolites that modulate lipid metabolism in the intestinal epithelium. This discovery was led by my exceptional graduate student, Catie Shelton. I was excited and in disbelief when she showed me the results that demonstrated that antibiotic-induced obesity in young mice could be prevented by giving them this metabolite! 

The Excellence in Science Award also celebrates your contributions to the broader scientific. What have you most enjoyed/found the most meaningful about such service? 

Byndloss: The most meaningful aspect of service is to watch the impact that even simple interactions with trainees and the public may have in their lives and the future of science. It is to watch trainees overcome their struggles and gain confidence about a long-term career in science. Or watch an elementary school child’s eye light up as they fall in love with science after doing a simple experiment. The time spent doing service and mentoring is a highlight of my job. 

What does it mean to you to receive the Excellence in Science Award?

Byndloss: I am proud and thankful for receiving the Excellence in Science Award. It is overwhelming to realize that my peers believe that my work has had a significant impact on the biological sciences, and it gives me motivation to continue my path of scientific discovery and mentoring the next generation of diverse scientists. This award is also a recognition of the support I have received from my previous mentors, who have taught me all that I know, and the work performed by my talented trainees, whose dedication fuels the outstanding scientific discoveries coming from my lab. 

What advice would you give to young women entering this field?

Byndloss: Each time I get asked this question the first thing that comes to my mind is a couple of verses from a Jay-Z and Pharrell song called “So Ambitious,” which says “Motivation for me is them telling me what I could not be! I’m on a mission no matter what the conditions, if you can believe it then you can conceive it.”

Throughout my career I had experiences in which my aptitude as a scientist was questioned just because I was a woman or Latin immigrant, or because I didn’t look like the typical professor. So, my advice for young women is to believe in themselves and be ambitious about their career goals, even when imposter syndrome or hard moments may make them think that being a successful women scientist is impossible. It is important to use the moments of doubt as learning moments and as fuel to keep moving forward (even if sometimes you have to use the “I will prove them wrong” statement as motivation). We need more amazing women scientists, and I’m here for it!