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Professor Lindsay Hall Talks Navigating Global Challenges for Women in STEMM

Professor Lindsay Hall leaning over a desk to talk to a man and a young child.
Credit: Andy Chapple / QIB.
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Professor Lindsay Hall is chair of microbiome research at the University of Birmingham, a role she assumed in 2023. Her journey into the microbial realm began at the University of Glasgow, where she earned a BSc in Microbiology, followed by a multi-disciplinary PhD in microbiology and immunology from the University of Cambridge at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

Hall then crossed the Irish sea to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship at University College Cork within the APC Microbiome Institute, a pivotal period that really ignited her fascination with gut-associated microbial communities (the so called gut microbiota). Returning to the UK, she took up her first independent role as a lecturer at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Here, Hall and her team expanded their research portfolio, delving deep into the intricate world of the gut microbiota, particularly during the critical early stages of life.

In 2015, Hall took a group leader position at the Quadram Institute in Norwich, where she established new clinical cohort studies that explored the gut microbiota's role in human health. During this time she also developed different initiatives to engage with the public through outreach and educational activities, under the theme of “Guardians of the Gut”.

Before joining the University of Birmingham, Hall held the position of chair of intestinal microbiome at the Technical University of Munich in Germany. In this role, she continued her research into beneficial microbes and developed innovative therapies to enhance infant health.


Rhianna-lily Smith (RLS): What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

Lindsay Hall (LH): My passion for science traces back to my early school years, a feeling undoubtedly influenced by my family background. Growing up with a biology teacher for a mum and a geologist/geographer for a dad fostered a curiosity-driven environment. Their encouragement (which they still give!) and enthusiasm for their subjects instilled in me a continuous desire to seek knowledge, a sentiment that drives my commitment to the teams past and on-going public engagement activities. I find immense inspiration in providing others with the same enriching and exciting scientific exposure that shaped my formative years.

During school, hands-on science experiments were a highlight. A particularly impactful experience was my final year project in advanced biology, where I delved into the effects of caffeine on the human body. This hands-on exploration, involving monitoring sleep patterns and blood pressure in my school colleagues (including those who didn’t drink coffee!), allowed me to undertake a hypothesis driven project and follow-up on study outcomes.

However, it was during my BSc at the University of Glasgow that my enthusiasm for science, particularly microbiology, really flourished. The engaging lectures and lab classes, and the supportive and exciting environment created by inspiring lectures, notably my undergraduate project supervisor Gill, played a key role. Gill's encouragement and support were crucial in my decision to pursue a PhD and to see where that would lead me.

Now, as I work with my fantastic team and our collaborators across the world, and witness the research coming out from all the projects, I am continually inspired. It is this collective pursuit of knowledge and the potential to contribute to scientific advancements, while also making a difference to human health, that keeps my passion for science burning brightly.

RLS: Can you tell us about your current research interests and area of expertise?

LH: In my current role, I lead a vibrant, multi-disciplinary team dedicated to exploring the intricacies of our gut microbial residents – the gut microbiota. We are particularly interested in the critical early stages of life, such as pregnancy and infancy, as this is when the colonization of beneficial microbes like Bifidobacterium occurs. These bacterial “superstars” subsequently play a pivotal role in shaping many different physiological functions that lay the foundations for lifelong health. Our research also extends to investigating how specific early life microbes, like Bifidobacterium, may positively modulate the risk and progression of chronic diseases, such as cancer.

Within our research program, we've organized our efforts into four interconnected themes, each shedding light on crucial aspects of microbiota-host interactions: diet and microbial impact, infection resistance, beneficial host responses and microbial community restoration. These themes serve as the guiding pillars for our research initiatives, and we use a range of “wet” and “dry” lab techniques to answer different research questions. I also oversee a number of clinical studies and cohorts, including a preterm infant and a mother-infant cohort. These large longitudinal patient studies are instrumental in providing in-depth clinically relevant insights.

Our holistic approach aims to decipher the fundamental mechanisms governing microbiota-host interactions in health and disease, ultimately paving the way for intervention and therapy development.

RLS: You have said that science communication and public engagement is at the heart of your research. Can you talk about some of your favourite projects you have been involved with?

LH: Science communication and public engagement are integral components of my research philosophy. I really enjoy “translating” the science we do into concepts that are accessible and create engaging narratives for the public. One of my favorite projects was our "Guardians of the Gut" exhibit – a fully interactive walk-through model of the human gut. Collaborating with artists, programmers and scientists, we transformed an initial design into a 3D model, incorporating 1,500 LED lights to simulate the microbiota.

We unveiled the gut at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, and it has also popped up at other science festivals, with the gut even making an appearance at a music festival! Recognizing the potential for broader impact, we have also created a free “Guardians of the Gut” school lesson plan, which has been downloaded by more than 250 schools and has proven highly effective in improving children's understanding of the gut microbiota.

Beyond physical and online initiatives, our public engagement extends through a dedicated website, social media, newspaper articles, radio and TV programs (most recently contributing and appearing on the series “You Are What You Eat”).

These projects align with the team’s commitment to “demystifying” science, making it inclusive and accessible. We hope that by fostering a deeper understanding of microbiota research within diverse communities, that we can inspire the next generation of scientists and instil a broader appreciation for the significance and fun of scientific research.

RLS: Throughout your career, you have worked in several locations around the world. What do you consider to be the primary challenges that women encounter when pursuing a career in (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) STEMM, and do you believe these challenges differ based on location?

LH: Embarking on a journey in STEMM as a woman has introduced both shared and location-specific challenges. 

Regardless of location, women in STEMM frequently encounter hurdles such as gender bias, unequal pathways for career progression, and a lack of representation in leadership.

However, I and many others, have observed that these challenges can manifest in diverse ways, and are contingent upon cultural and societal contexts.

Certain locations are bound by cultural norms reinforcing traditional gender roles, potentially limiting women's access to education and opportunities in STEMM fields. Overcoming stereotypes and biases becomes crucial for professional recognition and progression, and this necessitates the active breaking down of ingrained perceptions. This is why having key processes and action plans in place to help drive things in the right equality direction are so important.

Globally, the persisting underrepresentation of women in leadership roles within STEMM remains a significant concern. The scarcity of role models can impact young women's aspirations and contribute to a lack of diversity in decision-making processes. This underscores the significance of public engagement, increasing visibility of researchers and supporting career-focused initiatives. This is why the team and I are so keen on engaging in these activities.

Geographical variations in resources and support systems further compound challenges. Disparities in access to mentorship, networking opportunities and family-friendly policies influence women's capacity to balance career and personal life. Recognizing these disparities, which have been made even clearer through previous and ongoing conversations with female researchers, I am committed to extending mentorship opportunities to women from diverse backgrounds and settings.

Effectively addressing these challenges is something everyone needs to get behind – and a multifaceted approach, encompassing advocacy for gender equality, robust mentorship programs, and the implementation of inclusive policies is key. Emphasizing the importance of diversity in STEMM fields globally is paramount. By fostering an environment where all individuals, irrespective of gender or location, can thrive, we can collectively contribute to scientific advancements that can also benefit humanity.

RLS: What would you say is your proudest achievement?

LH: Reflecting on my proudest achievement, I find immense pride in navigating the intricate – and often challenging – journey of science and my career, continually collaborating with an incredible team and broader community that passionately supports and champions our work.

However, a specific accomplishment that stands out is our research on the gut microbial communities of preterm infants, a vulnerable population at high risk of severe conditions like necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). Delving into this area early in my independent research career, has initiated a cascade of inspiring studies, led by exceptionally bright and committed colleagues.

In the context of our work, we have unveiled disruptions in the gut microbiota of post-birth preterm infants when compared to full-term babies. Notably, preterm infants often lack crucial beneficial microbes, such as Bifidobacterium, while harboring an excess of microbes associated with severe infections and diseases, including NEC. Through our investigations, and in collaboration with others, we have demonstrated that supplementing with specific beneficial (probiotic) Bifidobacterium leads to a significant reduction in pathogenic bacteria linked to NEC, resulting in a remarkable 50% decrease in NEC and overall mortality rates.

These impactful findings have influenced neonatal intensive care units both in the UK and internationally, encouraging the incorporation of probiotics as standard care for preterm infants. Notably, our work has also been acknowledged in the recent World Health Organization preterm care guidelines in 2022. This impact and recognition serves as a profound inspiration to persist in our research activities and support and guide emerging researchers to develop their careers and projects in the field of preterm, and maternal and infant health. This would not have been possible without fabulous collaborations, which continually shape the trajectory of our research, and which have contributed to advancements in global healthcare practices for the most vulnerable among us.

RLS: What advice would you give to any young women looking to start their career in science?

LH: My advice for young women diving into a science career? Let your curiosity lead the way! Embrace your passion, resilience and advocacy (and that of others) to help guide your scientific journey. Cultivate relationships with mentors who inspire and support, which will foster both personal and professional growth. Approach challenges (but think carefully about what ones you decide to take on – remember saying no is important!) as opportunities for learning and skill development. For those embarking on advanced degrees such as an MSc or PhD (and indeed for those longer along the science road), building a robust network is paramount – within your lab, department, and the broader scientific community, remember conferences are gold mines for meeting new people and starting interesting collaborations!

Choose who you work with and collaborators wisely - work with people you respect and admire. Life's too short to team up with those who don't value and appreciate your worth. If confronted with gender biases, recognise your inherent value within the scientific community. Engage in open conversations with mentors, seek additional support and, when possible, address biases directly.

Advocate for yourself and others (this is so important!), which helps contribute to the establishment of a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable scientific environment. Interdisciplinary collaboration exposes you to varied methodologies and perspectives, and this only enhances innovative thinking. Own your achievements, shout about your contributions and hone your communication skills, considering courses that may help provide a boost. Continuous learning and improvement, especially in areas where your confidence may waver, are key to personal and professional development. Explore courses in communication, interactions, and imposter syndrome (which I have on a regular basis) as they can provide valuable tools for expressing ideas effectively and navigating professional relationships.

Balancing work and life is so important – prioritize self-care to ensure a fulfilling and enduring career. Foster a network of allies committed to diversity and mentorship. Acknowledge that setbacks are inevitable; however, view them as stepping stones, not roadblocks – and your support network can help bring perspective here. Your unique perspective as a woman in science enriches the scientific landscape. Embrace your journey with resilience, determination and the understanding that your contributions are indispensable to advancing scientific discovery and promoting inclusivity, including inspiring the next generation.

Professor Lindsay Hall was speaking with Rhianna-lily Smith, Editorial Assistant for Technology Networks. 

About the interviewees

Professor Lindsay Hall is Chair of Microbiome Research and a Wellcome Investigator at the University of Birmingham. Her research is focused on the critical early stages of life, including pregnancy and infancy, where the colonisation of microbes like Bifidobacterium coincides with pivotal physiological programming, laying the foundation for future health and vitality.