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WINS Professor Biography: Dr. Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello


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Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello (center figure in left boat) with the fieldwork team, leaving a community in the jungle. (From Cell, October 2016 Issue, image courtesy of Oscar Noya).

Dr. Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello is an Associate Professor in the Division of Translational Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, and considers herself to be a microbial anthropologist. She was WINS Fall 2016 Lecturer on the topic “The Early and the Ancient Microbiome”. She completed her BA in Caracas, Venezuela at Simon Bolivar University(USB) and completed her PhD in Microbiology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Much of what has driven her life’s work is microbe searching: searching through the guts of rodents, ruminants, birds, and humans throughout various continents. During her undergraduate years at USB, she became increasingly interested in the function of microbial organs (i.e., in which microbes perform tasks that the host animal cannot such as digesting plant cell walls in the stomach) while studying how well mice digested plant fibers. Later on, her PhD thesis fieldwork resulted in a paper published in Science that reported on the microbes in the crop of the hoatzin and how the crop can act as a fermenting organ. When she graduated and returned to Venezuela, she continued to study hoatzin at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC) and then began studying H. pylori (the bacterium in the human stomach that helps regulate stomach processes but can also contribute to ulcers). Her work with H. pylori, in which she studied strain type and ancestry, led her to label herself as a “microbial anthropologist”.

Although her professional successes set an excellent foundation for her own independent career, social unrest in the area would later influence her life path. While the Southern border between Venezuela and Columbia was filled with diverse ethnic groups that contributed to her research, the area was also filled with Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. In the face of increasing social violence and polarization that led to the rise of Hugo Chavez, Dominguez-Bello made the difficult decision to leave behind her tenured position at IVIC after spending 14 years there.

Despite all this adversity, she managed to gain a Faculty position at the University of Puerto Rico and was able to keep up with her research in Venezuela through a team that continued to work there despite the political challenges. While there, she became interested in studying isolated microbiomes (those not impacted by modern practices such as antibiotics, C-sections, and clothing). Part of this work would later on be published in an article in Nature, which discussed human intestinal microbiomes across continents and how US populations had significantly lower microbe diversity than traditional populations in Africa and South America. Comparing these populations led her to question, what is the significance of high microbe diversity of guts of comparatively primordial societies versus low diversity in urban societies? A point worth noting is that Dominguez-Bello observed that those in jungle villages seem to be less affected by diseases that plague our modern landscapes such as asthma, allergies, and diabetes.

Dominguez-Bello has described life as being filled with unpredictable outcomes, such as when she fell in love with Martin Blaser and chose to uproot her life at the University of Puerto Rico. After 11 years there, she left a tenured position for a second time. This last move led her to become a Faculty member at New York University School of Medicine. Here, she continued to focus on microbiome restoration in babies born by C-section and microbiome roles in disease risk. Her lab at NYU currently focuses on the co-evolution of the micobiota and host, and impacts exerted by Western lifestyle practices.

While this short biography could continue on with details of Dominguez-Bello’s innumerable accomplishments and experiences (such as saving a flu-naïve, village from the H1N1 epidemic of 2009), this narrative wants to focus on the primary source that brings all these experiences together: her passion for her field. Dominguez-Bello works to define the field of her self-proclaimed title of “microbial anthropologist”; she works to unravel the interaction between anthropology, ecology, and evolutionary studies to improve modern science’s understanding of the human microbiome and its role in health.

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Dominguez-Bello (right) working in the field with Venezuelan collaborators.

The following is a Q&A with Professor Dominguez-Bello:

1. Can you describe the most challenging experience you've had in your career as well as the most rewarding experience?

The most challenging experience is probably leaving one's country to start a career in the US. It has also been the most rewarding experience of my career.

2. What qualities do you think are essential for a scientist?

The most important is passion. The others needed (patience, hard work, creativity) come with it.

3. Can you remember a moment where you felt some kind of barrier to being a woman in science and how did you handle it?

Family competes with professional life, even if many women do not acknowledge this openly. Now more men are also having to do with the pressure of kids, since roles are more shared... But particularly in the US, where often people do not have their parents or in-laws in the same city, parenting becomes a problem. I was lucky, I worked in an institute with daycare and kindergarten. If companies, Universities and the State people realized how much better their employees work having their kids nearby, they would invest more in this social good and provide proper spaces to have these services, otherwise almost unaffordable!

4. Do you have any advice for aspiring women in science?

Find a supportive partner, and fight to have a 0-5 years daycare facility in your work place!