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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Lindsay Hall

3 Nov, 2014

Dr Lindsay HallDr Lindsay Hall wants to understand what’s going on in your guts. She’s a senior lecturer in gastrointestinal science at the University of East Anglia and holds a Wellcome Trust New Investigator grant. By understanding the communities of bacteria in the gut – especially how they develop in early life – she hopes it will be possible to develop therapies to help people with diseases caused by a disturbed balance of gut bacteria…

What are you working on?

We are working on the bacterial communities that inhabit the gut, termed the microbiota.

We are specifically focused on early life and how these beneficial bacteria such as bifidobacteria are able to colonise and subsequently protect us from pathogens. We’re also examining how early-life antibiotic administration disturbs these communities, and characterising new species/strains that could be used to ‘boost’ our microbiota after disturbances caused by antibiotics.

We’re also looking at how probiotics modulate the very early life microbiota in preterm infants and correlate this back to health.

What does your average day involve?

It’s normally very varied – each day is quite different from the next.

B0008091 Streaking bacteria on an agar plateAlthough I don’t normally do all these things in one day, this is normally what I get up to in the week: catching up on emails (so many emails!), discussing projects with everyone in the lab, meetings (science, admin, teaching), committee work, teaching/lecturing (undergraduate medical students), planning studies/projects and normally I have grants I need to work on, reading science journals, giving talks for both science and lay audiences…

I might get in to have a quick look at people’s agar plates or maybe show a technique, but I’m normally too busy to really get my hands dirty. I’m hoping that once the group is really settled and running I’ll get back in, but there is just so much to do when setting up the lab and group!

Why is your work important?

It’s important as our microbiota are critical for our health, including immune development and resistance to pathogens.

Disturbances in our microbiota can lead to a whole host of diseases and increase our susceptibility to infection. We start to ‘collect’ our microbiota straight after birth. During this time our beneficial bacterial communities are very fragile and can easily be disturbed, so we think its super important to understand what’s going on right at the start so we can have an impact on both short- and longer-term health

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

We hope that by really getting to grips with the mechanisms of early-life microbiota colonisation and interactions with the host (in this case, us!) we can develop beneficial bacterial or ‘probiotic’ therapies. These could then be used to supplement or treat infants that may have a disturbed microbiota or disease/infections, so we can promote lifelong health.

So, rather big(!) goals, but we like to think big and we always think about the way our projects in the lab can impact people in the longer term.

lindsay hallHow did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

Actually through a great collaboration during my postdoc in Ireland (University College Cork). I had a very strong focus on immunology and host responses with respect to chronic intestinal inflammation and one of the microbiology groups within the department, led by Prof Douwe van Sinderen, had some really interesting data on a microbiota member, called Bifidobacterium breve. They wanted to look further into how specific surface molecules could interact with the host. So we did, and we got a really nice story from the collaboration.

I also had a strong microbiology-host response background from my PhD but with a focus on pathogens, so I took all the bits I really enjoyed from my PhD, my postdoc, collaborations, and I read (a lot of!) papers. I decided this would be a great area to work in as the potential for impact and discovering lots of new and exciting things was high.

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

I was actually a Wellcome PhD student at the Sanger Institute and that gave me the environment and support to really start asking independent questions at a fairly early stage in my science career, and also the facilities to do some really interesting studies and answer some important questions.

When I moved back to the UK after my postdoc to start my first independent position at the University of East Anglia, I immediately thought of the Trust for funding to really get my independent career up and running. I was very lucky to be awarded a prestigious New Investigator award that has provided me with the funds to start building a world-class team and lab environment to answer questions surrounding the early life microbiota and health.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

How far away are we from developing new therapies?

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

The same as above!

As early life microbiota disturbances have been linked to lots of diseases – including asthma, eczema, inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmune diseases, infections – we know how important therapies could be. We want to get there as soon as possible, but there is still so much to understand and develop.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

sprowstonladiesI play Sunday league football for one of the local ladies 11-a-side teams, Sprowston Ladies in Norwich.

What keeps you awake at night?

What I need to do in work the next day and making sure everyone’s projects in the lab are interesting/exciting and will produce some nice insights – which is incredibly important for their career development.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Focus” – although being a new principal investigator this is sometimes difficult as there is so much to find out!

Our chain reaction question, set by previous spot lit researcher Dr Kenneth Baillie, is: “What should scientists do more of?”

Engage with the public about their research! Let’s get everyone as excited about our research as we are!

You can find out more about Dr Lindsay Hall and her research group on her University of East Anglia research page and read more about the research she carries out on the Institute of Food Research’s Gut Health and Food Safety Programme blog

Image credits: Streaking bacteria on an agar plate – Pablo Rojas, Wellcome Images, Sprowston Ladies in Norwich, supplied by Dr Lindsay Hall,

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