2021 Balzan Prize for Microbiome in Health and Disease
Acceptance Speech – Bern, 01.07.2022 (Video + Text)
Mrs. President of the National Council,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for this wonderful award and honor which, given its extraordinary history of recipients, I accept with the deepest gratitude on behalf of the magnificent group of students, post-doctoral fellows, staff scientists, and colleagues who I have been so fortunate to have worked with, and learned from, over the years.
When I was a student at Oberlin College, I experienced a place deeply committed to a liberal arts education. I was surrounded by individuals dedicated to understanding and resolving problems related to social justice; to how we can care for one another, live together peacefully, and flourish so that each person can realize her or his full potential.
When I was a medical student at the University of Chicago, I experienced a place of incredible disciplinary breadth and depth – a place filled with people driven by deep curiosity, a love of learning, and a thirst for knowledge.
When I was a young faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis, I encountered extraordinary mentors who had the ability to see the world through another person’s eyes and to place young people in environments that were most supportive of their needs and strengths. They empowered young people by conveying a sense that you were valued for who you were and for what you stood for, not just for the work you that produced. I am so appreciative of their attentiveness, thoughtfulness and wisdom; their lessons have never been forgotten.
Soon after I joined the faculty, a PhD student knocked on the door of my newly opened lab and asked to come in. I am so grateful to 142 PhD students and post-doctoral fellows who have come to the lab to share their lives with me.
They have had beautiful dreams and a wonderful sense of community – a belief that discoveries are born in caring, supportive, respectful, trusting, curiositydriven environments where people can share their ideas freely and at the same time not be afraid to say ‘I don’t understand’.
Words cannot express my gratitude to my family for their unconditional support and love of a husband and father who also lived in the captivating, incredibly stimulating, magical and mesmerizing world of science. Over the years, I have had the privilege and pleasure of working with fantastic collaborators. They include the late Abigail Salyers from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Tore Midtvedt from the Karolinska Institute, and Tahmeed Ahmed, Executive Director of the International Centre for Diarrhoeal
Disease Research in Bangladesh who, together with his team, have dedicated their lives to understanding the origins – and developing new ways to treat and ultimately prevent – maternal and childhood undernutrition. Other major collaborators include Michael Barratt at Washington University, Bernard
Henrissat, now at the Technical University of Denmark, Andrei Osterman at Sanford Burnham Presbys Medical Discovery Institute, Carlito Lebrilla at the University of California – Davis, and Christopher Newgard at Duke University.
Current human microbiome research is addressing questions first posed by microbiologists more than a century and a half ago … but it is doing so with new and rapidly expanding sets of tools – both experimental and computational.
When I was young, I was captivated by Paul deKruif’s book, The Microbe Hunters. Turning the pages of this book, I found the relationship with microbes portrayed in war-like rather than in mutually beneficial terms, and their roles explained in a singular rather than a community context. Later, I came to understand that ‘mutually beneficial’ was the more common form of our relationship with micro-organisms.
When I was young, I dreamed of going to Mars to search for life. When I was older, I did not have to travel that far to encounter new life forms. A trip a few meters inside was sufficient to encounter a captivating world of trillions of microbes – a terra incognita. Being able to see ourselves as a splendid collection of interacting human and microbial cellular and genetic parts teaches us that we do not travel through life alone unaccompanied, that there is a profound microbial dimension to our biology and health status. The dynamism of our microbial communities; their adaptability; the breadth of functions encoded in the genomes of community members that we have not had to acquire in our ‘human’ genome; the seemingly astronomical number of potential interactions between community components, and these components and their hosts, make the journey exploring this terra incognita awe-inspiring and humbling. The public is also captivated. As such, there is a need to approach bench-to-bedside
translation of discoveries mindfully, and to engage in a proactive societal dialogue about the ethical, legal, social, safety, and regulatory issues raised by this research.
I’m older now, but I feel very young. It is because I truly believe that all the work that we have done makes it possible to begin to do what we have always dreamed of doing. The best part of the journey is now, and will be tomorrow.