With the Researcher Spotlights, 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 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.
Brett Loman, PhD
Department of Animal Sciences
Dr. Brett Loman is an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences. Dr. Loman's research aims to improve animal and human gastrointestinal and mental health. By understanding how environmental factors such as nutrition and stress alter communication between the resident microbiota, intestine, and brain, his work strives to formulate dietary interventions that reduce gastrointestinal symptoms during functional gastrointestinal disorders, psychological stress, and cancer. In his researcher spotlight, Dr. Loman discusses his personal story and how his research aims to adresss our society's health challenges and improve his community.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
My undergraduate experiences in the UIUC Department of Animal Sciences played a huge role in allowing me to explore and shape my interests in diverse topics I did not appreciate previously. I became fascinated with the concept that what animals eat has such a substantial impact on their development and health. Admittedly, I was less than enthusiastic about microbiology until I took a ruminant nutrition class. Coming to understand how these massive animals rely almost completely on microbial metabolism to digest and transform their food into nourishment gave me a huge appreciation for host-microbiota interactions. A PhD and postdoc later, here I am with the opportunity to advance our understanding of two topics I never imagined I would love!
How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
I am enthusiastic to return to Illinois due to the truly collaborative research environment supported here. Everyone is so willing to share knowledge and resources that would otherwise be unavailable, and this is what allows interdisciplinary research to move forward. This is embodied in the extensive research initiatives and programs offered across campus.
How will your research or work improve society or reach people?
Study of nutrition and especially the microbiome are both new and exciting areas of research, and there is so much that we don’t know. My research program aims to understand nutrition-host-microbiota interactions on a basic and applied level to expand that body of knowledge so we can apply what we learn to understanding and optimizing gut health, while reducing gastrointestinal and psychological symptoms during stress and disease. I think everyone can relate to how inconvenient to debilitating gastrointestinal symptoms can be on our quality of life – we want to change that!
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 addressing these challenges, in and out of the lab?
As a society, we need to take a wholistic approach to improving living conditions for every person, but particularly those who have been systemically and historically excluded and disadvantaged. As nutrition scientists, we can empirically determine what efforts will support healthy communities from providing access to healthy food and nutrition information to reduce risk of chronic disease, but we must also be vocal and demand government support of programs implementing these findings in a meaningful way. We have to present our society with evidence and truth, but we must also make them act on it.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities you are particularly excited about right now?
There is a high co-occurrence of gastrointestinal and mental illness, and we want to understand pathways through which the microbiome, intestine, and brain communicate to reduce the burden of these disorders. By colonizing mice with microbiota from either a person with generalized anxiety disorder or a healthy control, we have identified differences in microbes that may influence anxiety-like behavior and intestinal motility. Specifically, we are focusing on the ability of Bifidobacterium species to produce neurotransmitters that communicate between the enteric nervous system and the brain. By optimizing microbial production of these neurotransmitters through supplementation of dietary fiber, we are hoping to reduce the gastrointestinal and mental symptoms associated with psychological stress.