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  • Writer's pictureAna María Vázquez-Catoni

Meet Dr. Emma Hernández-Sanabria, Microbial Ecologist

From uncertainty to adventure, from macro to micro, from challenge to triumph, Emma's pursuit of science is nothing short of bold.

Dr. Emma Hernández-Sanabria is a postdoctoral researcher at the Flemish Institute of Biotechnology (VIB) in Leuven, Belgium. There, she studies a system that simulates the ecosystem of the human colon. Emma has about ten years of experience working and exploring the gastrointestinal microbiome in ruminants and humans. Dr. Hernández-Sanabria's doctoral project focused on the study of the microbiome of ruminants, and how it relates to energy efficiency, weight gain, and other parameters in cattle for meat production.

Emma's beginnings in her hometown

A native of Querétaro, Mexico, Emma expresses that she has always been interested in ruminants. For three generations, her family had dairy cows. Emma laughs saying: "... it's a cliché. But many veterinarians are asked why they study veterinary medicine and the answer is usually “Because I like animals”. Actually, that's how it was for me."

So much so that Emma decided to pursue a degree in veterinary medicine at the Autonomous University of Querétaro. During that experience, she had the opportunity to be trained as a DVM, but she took a special interest in learning ruminant physiology. When she started interning on dairy cattle production systems, Emma was intrigued by the fact that ruminants can ingest some materials that are not digestible for humans, or even for other animals, and then convert it into energy and edible products like meat and milk. Hence, Emma found a new interest: animal nutrition.

With her newfound interest, Emma kicked off her journey abroad

She was driven by her interest in how to modulate and modify the process of balancing a food ration for a ruminant so that it can produce more meat or milk. Emma was accepted on the master's program in animal production and nutrition at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. However, just before starting her studies, Emma faced an unexpected and terrifying situation:

“When I first arrived in Aberdeen, I was about to be deported. The customs officer was not convinced about the self-funded program as stated on paper. She collected my passport and told me that I was going to return in the next flight to Mexico, two days later.”

Fortunately, the orientation team and the coordinator of the Student’s Office at the University of Aberdeen helped to sort out the issue. Emma was excited to start her studies.

Emma immersed herself in fascinating courses, and she was even more motivated when she started her thesis project at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) in Aberystwyth University in Wales. At IBERS, Emma was working for the first time with an in vitro system that simulates the bovine rumen, which is known as the Rumen Simulation Technique (RUSITEC). For four months, she experimented with this fascinating and complex system.

“I managed to understand all the mechanisms to recreate interactions in the rumen environment, I learned how to inoculate bacteria in this system. I really enjoyed seeing how two systems such as the rumen and the associated microbial communities are collaborating together."

When Emma was in vet school, her professor of Ruminant Nutrition mentioned once, "When you're balancing a ruminant ration, you have to think about the mammalian system and the microbial system." Emma could never perceive it as clearly as she did when she was working with the RUSITEC.

Exploring the microbial world, one invisible to the naked eye

Trigger warning: S****l harassment

Emma wanted to pursue her curiosity about these bovine systems and their associated microbial communities and applied for an opportunity to pursue a doctoral degree. Then, Emma came back to America to start her new chapter at the University of Alberta in Canada. Here, she was able to observe microbial interactions and interact directly with animals on the commercial farm at the University.

“Being able to relate all these microbial parameters, such as their abundances and how they interact with each other, with the productive parameters of animals that are important in industrialized farms, was really motivating. In short, to understand the direct impact of these microbial interactions."

Studying the rumen microbiome has not been a limit for Emma. She is also fascinated by the microbiome of the human gastrointestinal system, a system with some parallels to the rumen. “In the end, we are mammals. So many of the microbial interactions are common. It is a subject where there is still a lot to explore and we still lack information but omics and metagenomics have helped us to understand more about both systems."

Emma’s tenacity and enthusiasm to study these microbial systems were crucial to pursue postgraduate studies. However, Emma faced situations during her first year that, unfortunately, are not uncommon. Emma worked with a very demanding and strenuous PI. She was beginning to feel sick, largely due to the excess work. “Sometimes I was working from 6 am to 6 pm every day of the week. I did not think it was fair.” When Emma was sexually harassed by this professor and there was no action from the administrative level at the university, she decided it was enough.

“They allowed me to change supervisors, but he was not held responsible. From the time that I was there to now, he is a full professor. I think it is unfair but rather common.”

Emma started her research project again, with a different PI, surrendering the data she produced before. She stresses how unsafe for young researchers is the practice of ignoring such issues and the lack of accountability among the staff responsible.

I think many universities deal with these issues this way. They sweep it under the rug. Women who are starting their professional careers, must be aware and fight and stand their ground. When you have a network of support, it's much easier to deal with.”

Back to Europe

As mentioned above, animal gastrointestinal systems resemble those of humans. Regardless of the system, Emma has managed to learn from interactions in microbial ecosystems achieved by bacterial communities. Thus, her skills were transferable.

After six years in Alberta, Emma felt she needed a change of environment and to diversify her background, so she started seeking other opportunities. She discovered a position at Ghent University to study the microbiome of an area new to her, the human oral cavity. “It was another area, but it was an opportunity to learn. That's where all the digestion process starts". The project specifically focused on the oral microbiota during periodontitis, also known as gum disease, and exploring the microbial and physiological changes that occur in this environment.

Emma's role in this project was key as her expertise in microbial physiology, microbial ecology, and veterinary medicine helped her bring together pathology-focused dentists and environment-focused microbial ecologists. She loved working with an interdisciplinary team.

"That is the future of research. Finding teams that are multidisciplinary to actually have a much more complete vision of what a project is."

Still at the Ghent University, Emma worked on other environmental microbiomes. For example, she studied the microbiome of the substrate that is used in greenhouses for growing vegetables, mainly tomatoes. She also started working with human gut bacteria and even bacteria that break down hydrocarbons when there is an oil spill. Later, she worked with bacteria that inhabit buildings and others that are used to produce industrial products such as caproic acid. The skills acquired in different places, subjects and even work teams, taught Emma how to be a versatile and flexible researcher.

One of the most rewarding experiences for Emma was the opportunity to mentor four undergraduates, five master's, and one Ph.D. student.

“Of all the past experiences, knowing that there are students with interest and passion for the same subject and the desire to continue doing postgraduate studies in the same field, gave me great satisfaction. It is very fulfilling to provide scientific and personal advice, such as helping them identify situations where they can better balance work/life."

During this period, Emma worked with the human gastrointestinal microbiome using an in vitro system that simulates the human colon. With that, she was studying the effect of different anti-inflammatory compounds, such as celecoxib, aspirin and sulindac used in the prevention and treatment of inflammation in colon cancer. As of October 2019, Emma is working at VIB.

Emma's next goals and what she thinks of the future of agriculture

Emma would like to have her own research group and be a mentor but on a different level. She knows that her background, gender, and her experience in various fields would help her to contribute a lot to the microbiome field. "I will probably go back to the field of animal production or to the topic of ruminant gut microbiota."

Regarding the future of agriculture, Emma thinks:

“Agricultural production systems are no longer sustainable. Other alternatives must be developed, and room for improvement. I think we should focus on smaller production systems but with more personalized strategies."

When you least expect it, it has creeped up on you

Emma is not exempt from burnout. Emma didn’t realize she wasn't taking care of burnout until she went through two tough circumstances: (1) in her interview to apply for Belgian citizenship, she had lapses where she went blank, and (2) she was falling asleep during a meeting.

“That was the breaking point. I had slept like three hours that week. With burnout, you have trouble concentrating, sleeping, thinking, remembering things. I even forgot to speak Dutch completely. It is awful."

After this, Emma did not work for at least four months.

Published in May 2020, Emma wrote an article titled "Are You Still a Postdoc? How My Scientific Identity Intersects with My Immigrant Status". “I wrote it because the first months of the lockdown was a really tough time for me. I started to question myself, everything I was going through, and everything I was doing. I was thinking “all these things that I have done are so unworthy because no one cares.” But Emma figured she needed a way to process past events and make way for healing.

“I needed to put it in words and let go of all those experiences. I decided to write the paper and it was amazing to see the response from other people with similar experiences."

Other passions

Emma is a proud chinchilla-mom of two! “They are so spoiled! I love them! My therapist recommended to get a pet, to focus on something else, not only on myself.” Emma also loves baking.

“I like that pastry baking is a bit more scientific than cooking. When you are baking a cake, you have to be much more specific and more exact with the proportions than when you are cooking. "

She loves traveling and nature so much that she enjoys her two-hour commutes on the train that let her appreciate nature on her way. Emma enjoys sci-comm and interacting with people, especially on Twitter.

"I have grown as a scientist and as a woman"

According to Emma, being part of a minority in science is both an advantage and a disadvantage. “As a minority you always must try harder, and you need a lot more drive and motivation. You have to get used to being resilient and a survivor." However, Emma has managed to overcome adversity as well as to break the glass ceiling.

"Say what you mean. Speak up your mind. Don't be afraid. It can be super difficult because when you are young, you are sometimes intimidated to say what you think. Seek support and keep yourself safe. Put your foot down against any injustice that you see. Some people will be surprised or even angry, but you should not back off.”

You can find Emma on Twitter.



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