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  1. gut bacteria

    One of the most important areas of human nutrition research at the moment is focused on the gut microbiome. This term describes the population of bacteria which live in the human intestine, which comprises more than 1000 different species and tens of trillions of cells. It is estimated that around a third of the make-up of the microbiome is common to all humans, but the remaining two thirds varies in terms of species and the extent of gut colonisation and that, with the number of different permutations of colonists that are possible, is essentially a specific pattern that is unique to each individual. As these bacteria express more than 3 million different genes, their activities within the human gut have a large number of effects on human physiology.

    A review article by Milani and colleagues, published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, describes the effects of the gut microbiota on human health. These are highly varied and depend upon the nature of the species involved. Whilst some bacteria are pathogens (eg E. coli, B. fragilis_ and are linked to adverse health outcomes (irritable bowel syndrome, necrotizing enterocolitis, colorectal cancer) others (eg Lactobacilli, Bifidobacteria) are now known to have basic activities that promote health and are a fundamental part of human physiology and metabolism:

    • Digestion and adsorption
    • Vitamin synthesis
    • Immunomodulation
    • Inhibition of growth of pathogens

    In addition to these functions the gut microbiome is now understood to influence aspects of metabolic function, appetite and influence risk of obesity and diabetes. The nature of the gut microbiome is shaped by a number of different factors. These include genetics, exposure to microbes in the environment and the diet. A lot of the features of the microbiome are set in early life. Babies are born with a sterile gut and initially acquire microbes during delivery (vaginal compared to caesarean deliveries differ in the microbes that babies acquire), breast or bottle feeding, infections and exposure to pets. As we age the microbiome will respond to further infections, rounds of antibiotic treatment and the nature of the food we consume. As set out by Milani and colleagues, there are differences between the microbiomes of meat-eaters and vegetarians and bacterial species respond to dietary intakes of fibre and possibly fats.

    If you would like to know more about the role of bacteria in human health, then the review article is short, easily digested and free to access at the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics website.

  2. networking piccy

    Summer time is when lecturers and professors disappear for three months, until the students return from their holidays. They kick off their shoes, put on their swimming kit and head for the beach… No, not exactly. Academics work all year round and when the students are away they typically spend their time focusing more on their research activities. A part of that involves going to scientific conferences to present their research to their peers, to hear the research of others and to meet colleagues from all over the world that work in the same field. Sometimes this is in a really nice place, often outside the UK  (I have been to Australia, South Africa, Canada, the USA and a rather fine five star hotel in Majorca) and sometimes it can be quite mundane and ordinary (Leeds, Leicester or Luton).

    Whilst there are lots of science presentations and keynote lectures, these meetings are really all about networking- getting to know people and forming professional relationships. We like to get together in formal and in social situations, make friends, talk about science and generally plan world-domination. Networking isn't just for academics though, it is valuable for everyone. You may get the chance to meet and speak with a future employer, with your nutrition hero (!) or with students from other universities who, along with you, will be the nutrition leaders of the future. On this basis going to a conference is something you should really consider as a means of learning about the cutting-edge of our science and as a means of meeting people and making contacts.

    Networking is all about making use of connections between groups of colleagues to develop your career. Attending events that encourage networking is important for anyone who wants to  improve their career prospects. Who you know and how you know them can influence the development of collaborative projects, facilitate sharing of information and maybe even help you get a job. Networking can be formal or informal and works through face-to-face contact (a chat over a buffet lunch maybe) and electronic routes (sites like LinkedIn are good for developing networks). Meeting people through work or study is very much like forming personal friendships and you will mix with colleagues in your field, maybe from your own department or university and maybe from the other side of the planet. Some of them you will like a lot and form a bond with, others may not be your cup of tea, but better to find out at a conference than when you've committed to work with or for them. Conferences provide a great venue for all sort of networking activities and exploring of possibilities.

    Conferences can be incredibly expensive to attend for academics such as myself. They charge registration fees in addition to the costs of travel to exotic locations and accommodation. However, all conferences ensure that they remain accessible for students. There is always a cheap student rate for registration, so if you can find a conference that is nearby and cheap to get to, then you should definitely give it a go. In the nutrition world there are lots of options that might be useful to students at all levels. The Nutrition Society has an annual summer meeting and a winter meeting every year where you can see research presented by experts in their field and where postgraduate students often present for the first time. The society also has an annual postgraduate student meeting run by and for postgraduate students. For dietitians there is the annual BDA Research Symposium which is a great place to present undergraduate dissertation work and you might also consider going to BDA Live for a broader networking experience.