With the Researcher Spotlight, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois. For fall 2020, we have expanded the spotlight to focus also on the bright, dedicated graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who make up the next generation of innovators and leaders in our community.
Leila Shinn, MS, RDN, FAND
Division of Nutritional Sciences
Leila Shinn, MS, RDN, FAND, is a third-year PhD candidate in Dr. Hannah Holscher's Nutrition and Human Microbiome Laboratory in the Division of Nutritional Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences. She is a proud alumna of Illinois, receiving her B.S. in Food Science and Human Nutrition with a concentration in Dietetics in May 2015 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From there, she pursued her M.S. in Clinical Nutrition at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, she completed a dietetic internship and specialized in pediatrics. She became a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) in June 2017 and served as a Nutrition Research Intern with National Dairy Council (NDC). The work she completed at NDC, focusing on scientific translation, inspired her to return to school to pursue a career in research. Her dissertation research focuses on the impact of diet on the gastrointestinal microbiota, metagenome, and metabolome, with a goal of creating personalized microbiota-tailored dietary recommendations. She also currently interns with the nutrition science team at PepsiCo. When she's not in the lab, Leila enjoys trying new recipes and restaurants, watching the latest movies with her husband, tending to her collection of houseplants, and spending time with her three cats and rescue dog.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
I have been studying nutrition for nine years now, but I didn't always know that this was my calling. Growing up, my dream job was to be a cashier. I loved going to the grocery store with my parents and envied their scanning and button-pressing skills. At the young age of 16, I achieved my dream job and realized that I had potential beyond that. However, I have carried the customer service and interpersonal skills I started to develop as a cashier throughout my educational career. I started my freshman year at Illinois undecided. My first semester, I enrolled in an introductory food science and human nutrition course. I fell in love with nutrition and applied for and was admitted to the dietetics program my sophomore year. After completing my M.S. and training as an RDN, interning with NDC made me realize that my true passion was in the pursuit of research. The opportunity to work as an undergraduate research assistant with Dr. Hannah Holscher provided me with the connections necessary to come back to my alma mater. I reached out to her and started as a research technician in January 2018 before officially starting my program that August. Pursuing research that I know will be critical for the advancement of nutrition for the betterment of human health keeps me excited and invested in my work.
How does being part of the University of Illinois and/or the Champaign-Urbana community impact your research?
As an RDN trained in clinical nutrition, I think most people will appreciate that I had a limited background in statistical analyses and no background in computer science or machine learning. However, these methods are all crucial to my research. The Division of Nutritional Sciences is unique in that it is not the home department for any faculty involved. In other words, faculty hold positions in other departments like Food Science and Human Nutrition, Kinesiology, Microbiology, and Animal Sciences, to name a few. This design allows for the facilitation of interdisciplinary work. As such, my advisory committee is made up of experts in not only nutrition, but statistics and bioinformatics. The expertise of my mentors allows me to strengthen my nutrition background while also developing new skills in bioinformatics analyses. Collaborations with groups like the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and the Roy J. Carver Biotechnology Center's HPCBio, DNA Services, and Metabolomics Center, have provided me with exceptional resources to complete my research using state-of-the-art technologies.
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
Nutrition research is such a beautiful thing in that we'll always need it – it has the potential to benefit every single person because we all need food. Our work to determine the impact of diet on the gastrointestinal microbiota, metagenome, and metabolome has promising implications for clinical applications. In the same way that you go to the doctor and get your blood taken and they say something like "Your LDL cholesterol is high, which we know is our bad cholesterol, you need to take x medication," eventually we'll be able to take a look at your microbiota by collecting a fecal sample at a routine checkup and be able to say "Your gut microbiota is lacking x microbe which our research group has shown to have a positive impact on LDL cholesterol and based on our findings, if you add x amount of almonds to your daily diet, you can increase the presence of this microbe in your gut and improve your LDL cholesterol." Therefore, while my current work is exploratory and proof-of-concept, I hope that it can serve as groundwork for the long-term implications for personalized microbiota-tailored nutrition recommendations to better human health.
Recent news has pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and mental health as major societal health challenges. What part can researchers in your field play, in and out of the lab, in addressing these challenges?
I personally think that we have a responsibility to discuss and work on improving these issues both in our professional and personal lives. As researchers, we are lucky to be trained in how to read and interpret scientific findings, not just within our fields, but any. As such, we have the opportunity to use these skills in staying up-to-date with accurate information related to today's societal health challenges. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves about these pressing topics and use our knowledge to spread accurate strategies to combat these challenges. We are lucky to live in a time where it is becoming less and less taboo to discuss these issues in the workplace, and we should embrace this while capitalizing on the numerous resources our university provides for us so that we are constantly part of this crucial conversation.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
As the pandemic continues, I've had the opportunity to do a lot of self-reflection to decide what's important to me. While my PhD is of utmost importance to me and my dissertation research remains my priority (and I'll take this opportunity to plug my most recent first-author publication in The Journal of Nutrition), involvement in activities outside of the lab to maintain a feeling of social connectedness in this time of isolation and remain involved in outreach is important to me. This semester I have taken the lead on Grads UNWIND (Understanding Wellness IN Discussions), a group I helped to start with other Illinois grad students in Fall 2019. Our goal was to focus on mental health and self-care during graduate school. We curated workshops featuring diverse speakers and laid-back conversations about important topics related to wellness and mental health, a topic that I think is often pushed to the side as graduate students. We're currently hosting monthly sessions, and we'd love to gain more traction across the graduate student population at Illinois so that we can best serve one another (Instagram: @gradsunwind).