Breaking ground in gut microbiome research

08 March 2020

Alena Pribyl

Dr Alena Pribyl, Microba

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Alena Pribyl was advised by her school teacher to steer clear of science. Thankfully, it was advice she ignored, and in recognition of International Women’s Day on March the 8th, she shares her love for her work with Queensland-based gut microbiome gurus Microba...

Pribyl hails from Portland, Oregon in the U.S. She has always had a keen interest in how things work and, she says, "always had a fascination with the natural world and spent a lot of my younger years outside.”

But her middle school teacher thought she should steer clear of science. “I remember when I was in the 6th grade, my Science teacher told me I was ‘really terrible’ at science and shouldn’t go into it!”

Undeterred, she forged ahead and completed undergraduate and post-graduate degrees as well as a PhD. Her journey was not straight forward though, and she changed focus several times.

“I always wanted to study biology, but I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to focus on,” she says. “That was a long process to narrow down as I was interested in everything!”

In middle school, after watching a documentary, she decided that she wanted to study dolphin communication and, like many other teenage girls at the time, was slightly obsessed with dolphins through part of high school. At university, she completed an honours degree in biology, concentrating on marine biology and chemistry. She loved marine biology, but decided to switch to a more practical area of biology for her Master's so she could have a better chance of finding employment later. Her Master's research focused on nitrogen cycling in polluted river systems, which she discovered she didn’t enjoy very much as her research couldn’t easily be applied to solving a problem.

“I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I managed to get a job working as a fisheries biologist. This opened up a whole new world for me because all of our work was immediately used by the fishery managers and I finally felt I could contribute to something useful.”

“This made me realise that what I really wanted was to have my research applied in the real world. I was frustrated during my Master's because the research couldn’t be applied to improving the environment. I wanted what I did to make a difference.”

After two years working as a fisheries biologist, Pribyl went back to school to complete a PhD in fisheries biology, where she investigated how marine fish species respond to and recover from stress, which included a strong focus on molecular biology.

At this point, it’s important to understand how a fisheries biologist from Oregon ends up working in gut microbiome research in Australia. Pribyl explains that the change was completely unexpected.

After a career in fisheries for nine years, she was awarded a prestigious fellowship to work in science policy at the California Legislature. Her work involved researching the latest science to inform new policy and communicating the science to policymakers so they could make better informed decisions. She developed a passion for science communication to better inform people and found the work very rewarding.

“I really loved that, because I was able to see my work making a tangible difference in the real world.”

She and her husband decided to take some time off work to explore the South Pacific with an old sailboat they had fixed up. They eventually made it to Australia in late 2014 where they decided to stay for a short time to see if they could find work.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much work in science policy or natural resources at the time. But eventually Pribyl came across a job opportunity working at the Australian Centre for Ecogenomics (ACE) at the University of Queensland as a one-year replacement lab manager. The co-founders of the company she now works for were the Director and Deputy Director of ACE.

It was while managing the lab that Pribyl was exposed to gut microbiome research and became hooked.

“In this job I was able to apply my skills and knowledge in molecular biology techniques from my fisheries days, to a different type of organism, bacteria. As I read more about the microbiome research conducted at ACE and the gut microbiome in particular, I realised that here was a field with a massive potential for improving human health, and that had a huge need for scientific information to be accurately communicated.

“I was working in a lab that had actually developed the tools to answer key questions in the field that needed to be answered. I felt this was an amazing opportunity where I could use my research and communication skills to really contribute.”

For the two plus years Pribyl worked at ACE, she spent all her extra time immersing herself in the scientific literature on the gut microbiome. When the Directors of ACE embarked on the journey to start Microba, they brought Pribyl onboard to help with science content development, science communication and the development of presentations for potential investors. Now, as Senior Scientist at Microba, Pribyl uses both her research and science communication hats, where she stays on top of the latest research, contributes to scientific papers, translates the latest science for laymen, and develops and delivers presentations to academics, health care professionals and the general public on the gut microbiome.


But where is gut microbiome research heading in the future, and how will scientists such as Pribyl contribute?

“The future for gut microbiome research is heading towards both diagnostic and therapeutic use. Over the last decade, the research mostly focused on associations with various health conditions using low-resolution methods with small sample sizes. But now that our databases are getting larger and we have more high-resolution data than ever before, we are getting to the point where we can start using machine-learning algorithms to come up with validated diagnostics to be able to test someone for a specific disease or potential disease risk."

“Also, the mechanisms for why we see disease associations are starting to be uncovered, which is leading to the development of treatments that can target the gut microbiome. It is truly an exciting time to be in this rapidly growing field.”

Pribyl speculates that gut microbiome analysis will become part of a regular check up at the GP in the future.

When asked what role women could play in the future of gut microbiome research, she's enthuses that there were more opportunities in the field than ever before for young researchers to find.

“Gut microbiome research is a burgeoning field with increasing funding being put toward it as people recognise its importance. Young students can start their journey by getting a good foundational education in biology and microbiology and participating in a research experience at their Uni. Many research Universities these days will have a lab working on the gut microbiome.”

Pribyl is inspired by the female mentors she has worked with in the past. “I was incredibly fortunate to have some amazing women as role models when I was in university and starting work. They showed me that women do belong in science and can achieve just as much as men.” She credits the support and assistance from these women as part of why she is working in science still to this day.

The future of the gut microbiome research is bright, with new publications coming out regularly, and more and more research institutions setting up labs focused on this area of research. The future of women in gut microbiome research and science is also bright, and women such as Pribyl are shining examples of what they can achieve if they have passion, drive and the ethos of ‘making a difference’.

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