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School & Program Updates

School & Program Updates

Michigan Receives Burroughs Wellcome Fund Award to Train Young Scientists to Look For Links between Health, Microbes

A $2.5 million Burroughs Wellcome Fund award will allow the University of Michigan to train a new generation of multidisciplinary scientists to integrate population and microbiome sciences — considered key to understanding human health and disease.

[Photo: Dr. Betsy Foxman]

In August, the University will accept its first students into a new program called Integrated Training in Microbial Systems: Modeling, Population and Experimental Approaches.

“The students are going to be a special breed,” said Dr. Betsy Foxman, program co-director who is the Hunein F. and Hilda Maassab Professor of Epidemiology at the U-M School of Public Health. “We’re looking for students with big ideas who like to integrate biology with math modeling, epidemiology and ecology.”

Recent advances in technology have allowed scientists to gain new insights about environmental and human microbial communities. These include high throughput DNA sequencing, which is the fast, inexpensive way to sequence entire genomes, and metabolomics, the study of metabolites, such as sugars and fats, in a cell.

Microbes are an inherent driver of planetary biology and evolution, from the creation of an oxygen atmosphere to the recycling of nutrients that sustain plant growth on Earth, and form a symbiosis with the environment and all of life. Microbial ecology involves studying how these microbes interact with other organisms, including other microbes, humans and the environment.

The human microbiome is a collection of trillions of microorganisms living on or inside the human body. These microbes play a role in diseases ranging from inflammatory bowel to obesity. They modify the effectiveness of drug therapy, and train and develop immune response.

“We can look at how microbial communities act to prevent or enhance disease processes,” said Dr. Foxman, who also directs the Center for Molecular and Clinical Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases, and previously directed the Interdisciplinary Training Program in Infectious Diseases.

Seven U-M schools and colleges, represented by 18 departments and 60 labs, currently are doing work related to microbial communities, Dr. Foxman said.

“We’ve established connections between these departments but the students will make them real. Our trainees will build bridges between the departments, and be the engines for new, cross-cutting research projects,” she said.

The Burroughs Wellcome Institutional Program Unifying Population and Laboratory Based Sciences Award will provide $500,000 in each of five years to bridge the gap between the population and computational sciences and laboratory-based biological sciences.

The goal is to establish training programs through a partnership involving schools of medicine and schools or academic divisions of public health. These lead partners then can add others, including those working in international and industrial settings, national laboratories, laboratories of federal agencies, and quantitative population research groups outside of the life sciences.

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