Team of 94 undergraduate students publish paper exploring gut health

06 February 2020


Research by Professor Chiara Gamberi co-written with entire biology class published in Microbiology. Published in Microbiology, Gamberi's latest study examines the complex metabolic networks of the gut microbiota and how they affect human health, and is co-authored by 94 undergraduate students, offering a rare opportunity for young scholars to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Concordia researcher Chiara Gamberi is on a mission to explore the role gut microbiology plays in overall health – and she’s taking her students along for the ride.

An affiliate assistant professor of biology at Concordia University, Gamberi is pioneering a next-generation, hands-on approach to classroom learning that gives undergraduates the skills they will need as professionals in their field.

Published in Microbiology, Gamberi's latest study examines the complex metabolic networks of the gut microbiota and how they affect human health, and is co-authored by 94 undergraduate students, offering a rare opportunity for young scholars to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

‘A constant exchange’

The paper examines the reciprocal relationships between the host and the microbiota.

“It’s a constant exchange,” Gamberi explains.

The human intestine has, on average, a surface of 30 to 40 square metres. All individuals possess a gut microbiome, which could stay relatively stable over time. But they can alter due to changes in diet, geographic location, lifestyle and the medications people take, among other factors.

The team examined how gut microbiota can contribute to a host of medical problems, including obesity, diabetes and atherosclerosis – and how they can possibly be used to improve health.

“The human gut microbiota is a fascinating topic, both biologically and scientifically,” Gamberi says.

“It has complex ramifications in human physiology. We keep finding more and more links between the microbial communities – bacterial consortia – living in our intestine and human physiology. It’s scientifically intriguing because it expands our views of human biology and human health to new heights.”

An ongoing teaching project

This isn’t the first time Gamberi has used classroom learning as an avenue for her undergraduate students to get published.

In 2015, she pioneered this new pedagogical model, which enabled 106 third-year undergraduate students to co-author a scientific review article, 'Human Gut Microbiota: Toward an Ecology of Disease', published in the journal Microbial Symbioses in 2017.

“This is a novel approach that I have designed to involve undergraduates in the research and scientific process actively” Gamberi says.

“We must invest in the education of the new generations to advance progress. This will endow them with critical thinking, excellent communication skills and the capacity to find and understand the results from primary research.”

She adds that in an era where the validity of information is often compromised and news stories are inflated beyond their real value, intellectual independence and research ability are more important than ever.

Getting a big team on the same page

While admitting she was initially fazed by the size of her class, which averages 100 students, Gamberi has found strength in numbers. She splits the large class into groups of four or five students and assigns one article to each.

“Every student in the course learned how to perform an initial guided research of published literature” Gamberi says.

Next, the students learned to compose a written contribution as a group. After the course was over, three students volunteered to assemble and edit the article under Gamberi’s direct mentorship and supervision.

Tarin Sultana is one of the study’s co-editors. “This initiative moved forward as a pedagogical approach that demonstrated the value of teamwork, collaboration and painstaking review of original research works,” she says.

“This undertaking has marked a milestone in many next-generation scientific careers.”

Susannah Selber-Hnatiw, a fellow co-editor and the article’s first author, adds that opportunities to write scientific papers at the undergraduate level are scarce.

“This writing project was my second grand endeavour with Dr Gamberi [Selber participated in Gamberi’s first co-published paper].

“Many assignments involve writing, yet few require the tools and skills necessitated in published works. Dr Gamberi’s approach adds great value to the other regular skills students obtain from their university education."

“Dr. Gamberi brought a whole new meaning to the classroom experience, where a simple assignment may lead to a concrete contribution to the scientific community," says third co-editor W, adding they hope the project inspires others.

“This next-generation approach allows students involved in a course to create something that can be remembered.”

Gamberi also credits the Georges P. Vanier Library team as an invaluable resource in helping students to navigate the world of academic publishing and avoiding the perils of plagiarism.

Katharine Hall has been a tremendous resource,” she says. Hall is the Biology and Health, Kinesiology and Applied Physiology subject librarian. The two faculty members co-authored an article about the subject.

“I am extremely grateful to her for all she has done to support my students and her collaboration in this educational initiative,” Gamberi says.

Moving ahead

Encouraged by two successful iterations of her model, Gamberi is ready to move ahead with a third, this one focusing on the role hormones play in regulating kidney function.

“Now we know the model works. I don’t plan to stop,” she says.

“I love working closely with students, to encourage their curiosity and to see how much it opens minds and doors to foster their love of learning and of science.”

Notes to Editors:

Peer reviewed            Literature review

The full scientific paper can be found on the Microbiology website. (DOI 10.1099/mic.0.000853)

Microbiology is a publication from the Microbiology Society and has been publishing the latest advances in microbiology since 1947. The Microbiology Society is a membership charity for scientists interested in microbes, their effects and their practical uses. It is one of the largest microbiology societies in Europe with a worldwide membership based in universities, industry, hospitals, research institutes and schools.

Our principle goal is to develop, expand and strengthen the networks available to our members so that they can generate new knowledge about microbes and ensure that it is shared with other communities. The impacts from this will drive us towards a world in which the science of microbiology provides maximum benefit to society.

For more information, please contact [email protected]

This Press Release has been labelled in-line with The Academy of Medical Sciences’ recommendations.

Image: iStock/Tatiana_Stulbo.