Leading Native American microbiologist shares what fish can teach us about our guts

A leading Native American microbiologist showcased her work on gut health at the first-ever UBC Life Sciences Joint Seminar Series on Friday, September 16.

Dr. Kat Milligan-McClellan, assistant professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Connecticut, presented her work about how gut microbes vary between populations and how her lab developed a fishy model for studying microbial communities. In her talk titled “Adapting an evolutionary model organism for host-microbe studies,” Milligan-McClellan described how her Inupiaq heritage informed her research, her lab’s recent breakthroughs and her passion for advocacy and outreach.

Research on what matters

Milligan-McClellan’s academic career started with research on microorganisms that can cause infections and food poisoning. She developed an impressive research record, but when Milligan-McClellan would return home, the central question posed by her friends and family wasn’t related to the latest microbe featured in her lab work.

“They said ‘What’s the point of all this education if you’re not actually doing anything that can help people back home?’ So when I was looking at my postdoc, I took those words to heart,” she said at the seminar.

This ignited Milligan-McClellan’s deep dive into diseases that impact Alaskan Natives and Native Americans more than other populations, like stomach cancer, obesity and diabetes.

These disorders that disproportionately affect Indigenous groups, including her own family members, can be linked back to the gut microbiota — a complex ecosystem in the bowels that relies on a balance between microbes and the body’s immune system. Her work focuses on exploring how populations respond differently to the microbes living in their gut and what happens when these communities are changed.

Something fishy

Individual differences in gut microbiomes and how that relates to physical differences is tricky to study due to a lack of experimental models that can be used to explore these research questions. Milligan-McClellan’s answer to this knowledge gap can be found in the waters of her native Alaska: the three-spined stickleback.

Three-spined sticklebacks, a well-studied fish with high birth rates, share many pathways relevant to Milligan-McClellan’s research with mammals. These fish are also special because they can be found in distinct populations across Alaska, which Milligan-McClellan’s lab discovered harbour different communities of microbes.

These results are significant as they suggest external factors like diet and habitat can influence the gut microbiome. They also support three-spined sticklebacks as a promising model for studying how gut microbes vary by population.

As her previous study worked swimmingly, Milligan-McClellan partnered with a team of researchers to explore how the microbiomes of these unique populations evolve over time. In this collaboration, fish were introduced to new lake sites to see whether their microbiome would change to reflect their new environment.

“The really cool thing about this experiment is that we’re doing this in collaboration with a huge team of people,” she said. Her ten collaborators include experts in genetics, immunology, evolutionary biology and more. The team is currently awaiting data and, according to Milligan-McClellan “this is going to be a very cool experiment to follow over the next few years.”

Centring community

Milligan-McClellan grew up in a predominately Alaskan Native community above the Arctic circle. She was introduced by seminar host Dr. Carolina Tropini as “an Inupiaq, runner, mother, microbiologist and beader,” although not necessarily in that order. As the first Alaskan Native with a PhD in microbiology and one of the 115 Alaskan Natives with a PhD, Milligan-McClellan has used her academic experience to act as an advocate and educator within her community.

During her talk, Milligan-McClellan placed a special emphasis on her Inupiaq background. She took a moment to centre Indigenous land stewardship and encouraged listeners to access the Land Grab Connecticut project, an initiative dedicated to educating viewers about the land that the University of Connecticut sits on and the resulting impacts on Native communities.

According to her website, Milligan-McClellan has been an active member of multiple Native campus communities over the course of her academic career. Her advocacy work includes being an active member in Indigenous student groups, teaching introductory microbiology to Indigenous high school students to help prepare and empower them for college, spearheading a course at the University of Connecticut about how marginalized groups have been excluded from Western science and much more.

Milligan-McClellan is excited to expand her outreach efforts and welcome new graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to her team. Students interested in taking on ‘fishy’ projects of their own can contact her lab with their research area of interest and a copy of their CV.

This is the first talk in a collaborative seminar series, spearheaded by multiple UBC departments and sponsored by Leica Microsystems and Dr. Pieter Cullis. Talks are open to the UBC campus community and will be taking place every second Friday with exception for statutory holidays. Interested students can inquire for more information online.