With the Researcher Spotlight, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities on 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.
Hannah Holscher, Ph.D., R.D., is an assistant professor of nutrition in the department of Food Science and Human Nutrition and the Division of Nutritional Sciences. She also has affiliate appointments with the Institute of Genomic Biology (IGB), the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), and the Family Resiliency Center. Before joining the faculty in 2015, she completed postdoctoral training focused on the human microbiome, as well as a doctorate in nutritional sciences and a bachelor’s in food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois. She is also a Registered Dietitian.
Research in Prof. Holscher’s laboratory, the Nutrition and Human Microbiome Laboratory, integrates the areas of nutrition, gastrointestinal physiology, and the microbiome. Her research focuses on the clinical application of nutritional sciences with an overarching goal of improving human health through dietary modulation of the gastrointestinal microbiome.
In addition to publishing in top nutrition journals, she also actively disseminates research findings in formats ranging from scientific presentations and webinars to podcasts, Twitter chats, blogs, and popular press articles. Dr. Holscher was recognized as a 2017 New Innovator in Food and Agricultural Research.
What is your research in microbial systems about?
Research in my laboratory, the Nutrition and Human Microbiome Laboratory, aims to improve human health through dietary modulation of the gastrointestinal microbiome. I focus on two main areas: 1) advancing foundational knowledge in the field of nutrition and the microbiome by characterizing the impact of diet and eating behaviors on the microbiome; and 2) delineating the interrelationship of diet, the microbiome, and human health. The long-range goal of my research program is to uncover nutritional knowledge and transformative solutions that will lead to better human health by providing evidence-based recommendations for diet-microbiota-tailored therapies.
How are you conducting your research?
My laboratory utilizes clinical and computational approaches to conduct our research. The clinical trials involve a dietary intervention, for example providing meals with and without avocados, nuts, or broccoli. Then, we assess markers of metabolic health, like blood pressure, waist circumference, and percent body fat, to determine the effects of our dietary intervention. Since we conduct clinical research, we collect stool samples to characterize the gut microbiome and microbial-derived metabolites. Then, when we get back the terabits of A, T, C, and Gs from the Carver Biotechnology Center, we use the computational resources in the Institute of Genomic Biology as well as collaborate with faculty and scientists in the National Center of Supercomputing Applications to conduct more advanced analytic approaches.
How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
Illinois is a world-class research institution. The people and facilities are outstanding, which allows me to conduct interdisciplinary research with brilliant scientists using state-of-the-art approaches. I have access to genomic, metabolomic, and computational equipment, as well as clinical research facilities and a metabolic kitchen. I also feel fortunate to have the support of teams of people in the College of ACES, the Carver Biotechnology Center, the IGB, the Interdisciplinary Health Science Institute, and NCSA that help me advance my research. I really can’t think of a better place to conduct my research.
How will your research or work improve society or reach people?
As the majority of adults in the US are at risk for or have metabolic diseases, my research is highly likely to positively benefit the public by providing evidence-based dietary recommendations to modulate the gastrointestinal microbiome to reduce the public health burden of overweight and obesity and associated co-morbidities.
My research reaches the public directly through open access publications, webinars, public press articles, twitter chats, and podcasts. In fact, I recently went on [Illinois Public Media’s] the 21st show to talk about our work on gut microbes and mood with Niala Boodhoo. I also frequently give seminars at state and national meetings for registered dietitians and nutrition educators so that they can learn more about diet and the microbiome and pass that information along to their patients, clients, and the public.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
I’m a nerd. I have always loved to learn new things, especially in the life sciences field, and work to deconstruct complex problems. And, I’ve been fortunate because at each step, elementary school, high school, college, graduate school, and beyond, I’ve had outstanding mentors who have encouraged me to keep learning and supported me along the way.
So, I’ve just kept pivoting to learn more about whatever scientific topic strikes me as intriguing. As the microbiome field has been driven by advances in sequencing and computational approaches, I’ve recently been spending more time delving into computation and advanced analytics. We’ve been working on some new methods to predict food intake using microbial biomarkers and better understand host-microbiome interactions.