The 2023 Microbial Multiverse Symposium, hosted by the Microbial Systems Initiative (MSI) September 14-16, manifested a vital component of MSI’s priorities to promote collaboration, advance research, and support faculty and trainees. The event served as a unique opportunity for microbial systems researchers across campus to convene and connect.
Animal physiologist, biochemist, and pioneering microbiome specialist Margaret McFall-Ngai kicked off the symposium with an inspiring keynote. Her work on the relationship between bobtail squid and the luminescent bacterium, Vibrio fischeri, illustrates the power of using interdisciplinary approaches to address fundamental biological questions. Exploring the power of ‘maiki’ [invisible force] and the fundamentals of biology, McFall-Ngai explained that we are living in a time of a major paradigm shift focused on microorganisms as the foundation for understanding all biological processes. She emphasized how the scientific community is now realizing the importance of the microbial world--something that microbiologists have recognized for centuries.
Day two of the symposium boasted a full schedule of sessions featuring invited speakers from across the country and accomplished faculty from the Illinois campus. Providing a platform for experts to share their latest findings and perspectives, the research talks covered a wide spectrum of topics in the field of microbial systems:
Furthermore, researchers highlighted areas within microbial systems research that require further exploration, where gaps in current knowledge exist, and how diverse perspectives are necessary to tackle society's grand challenges.
Capping off day two, the Microbial Multiverse Symposium poster session was a showcase of trainee-led research in microbial systems. Attendees had the opportunity to explore 40 posters across diverse fields of research. Topics ranged from investigating the androgenicity of urinary tract microbiomes on prostate cancer cells to exploring the evolutionary and ecological impact of rhizobiophages. This invaluable session not only highlighted the depth and breadth of research within microbial systems, but also demonstrated the value of the symposium in promoting cross-disciplinary learning, knowledge sharing, and innovation in the field of microbial systems. View highlights from the poster session.
The symposium closed on day three with a final session on Harnessing Microbial Activities which explored the diverse approaches to utilizing microbes in innovative ways, followed by a panel of health sciences researchers across campus discussing the importance of interdisciplinary research. In the closing keynote, Making Pandemics Visible, author and historian Monica Green, echoed Mc-Fall Ngai’s maiki. Green also highlighted the need to answer fundamental questions about our history in the context of pandemics and plagues, exploring the role scientists need to fill in collaboration with historical narratives.
Various presenters remarked on the commonality of fiber-like structures across various environments and contexts. These structures are essential for microbial adhesion, community formation, and nutrient exchange, playing critical roles in biofilm formation, the rhizosphere environment, gut microbiota and mucosal protection, and wastewater treatment processes. In her presentation, Erica Majumder discussed how the decay of plastic waste into microplastics in the form of fibers or strands contributes to harmful algal blooms in water systems further underscoring the interconnectedness across these systems. These insights emphasize the value of interdisciplinary approaches in unraveling complex phenomena with far-reaching implications for science and society.
Symposium attendees identified their biggest takeaway as the value of the opportunity to hear from so many different domains of science. Inspired by the diverse range of perspectives presented at the symposium, attendees recognized how exposure to ideas from different fields can lead to innovative thinking and problem-solving and began to think differently about their own research. “The different methodological approaches presented throughout the day also piqued my interest and challenged me to consider how I could apply them within my own laboratory,” said Hannah Holscher, professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. “This speaks to the outstanding science communication skills of the presenters throughout the day—it is not easy to translate your science to such a diverse audience! Bound by our shared interest in microbes, I am confident that the ideas and conversations spurred by the symposium will help usher in a wave of research innovations.”
Notably, the 2020 cluster-hire faculty were actively engaged throughout the entire symposium. Nearly all session chairs and speakers were early-career faculty. "It was amazing to see what these new faculty can accomplish in just 3 years,” remarked MSI director Cari Vanderpool. “Getting to know these incredibly talented folks and seeing their careers take off has been a highlight of my career.”
The Microbial Multiverse Symposium serves as a blueprint for future symposia that unite diverse fields, spark collaboration, and break down disciplinary barriers. By nurturing a culture of openness and teamwork, the Microbial Systems Initiative sets an example for how interdisciplinary collaboration can lead to groundbreaking discoveries in microbial science and beyond. MSI leadership and organizers are considering plans for next year.
Contact MSI Assistant Director, Sara Ressing, with questions or to share your ideas for future symposia around microbial systems. Subscribe to the MSI monthly newsletter to learn more about MSI researchers, events, funding opportunities, and more.
The Microbial Systems Initiative thanks our invited guests, local presenters, and attendees for their contributions to the symposium. We would also like to thank the planning chairs, Christopher Gaulke and Paola Mera, the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Institute Communications team, and the MSI team for their work to ensure the success of the 2023 Microbial Multiverse Symposium.
The Microbial Multiverse Symposium was co-hosted by the Department of Microbiology, the Institute for Genomic Biology, the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology, the College of Veterinary Medicine, and the Personalized Nutrition Initiative, and made possible by the Olga G. Nalbandov Lecture Fund.