Erika Abel and Leigh Greathouse
Season 5 - Episode 513
Erika Abel and Leigh Greathouse are passionate about providing opportunities for undergraduate students to become involved in research, focusing in Greathouse’s lab on the relationship between the microbiome, health and disease. Abel is a clinical professor of biology in the Honors Program, while Greathouse serves as associate professor in nutrition science in Human Science and Design. In this Baylor Connections, they share how an investment from the Honors College is opening new pathways for students to engage in high-level cancer and diet research.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith. And today we are visiting with Erika Abel and Leigh Greathouse. Dr. Abel serves as clinical professor of biology in the honors program at Baylor. Dr. Greathouse serves as associate professor in nutrition science in Baylor's human science and design department. Both Dr. Abel and Dr. Greathouse encourage students to participate in high level research projects in human health and disease and are partnered in a special arrangement to provide new opportunities for student research in Dr. Greathouse's lab. Thanks to investment from the Honors College, anaerobic chamber enhances award-winning research in gut health and disease and provides new opportunities for undergrads.
Derek Smith:Both are cancer survivors and Dr. Abel and Dr. Greathouse met while working at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston before joining the Baylor faculty and they're with us today on the program. Right to visit with you both and to learn a little more about your research and this partnership, I want to start by asking each of you about your scholarly interests and research focus, how you would maybe describe that to someone from another department. Dr. Greathouse, we'll start with you.
Leigh Greathouse:Our research focus is really honed in on understanding the relationship between diet, what you put in your body and how that affects the bacteria or the microbes that live in your body, mainly in your gut. So really interested in understanding how diet affects your gut microbiome, those bugs that live there. And how specifically does this interaction affect your risk of cancer and your treatment response? So we're really focused on trying to understand over time during your diagnosis and your cancer treatment, how does what you eat affect your gut microbiome and how does that affect your treatment response? So in general, that is the focus of our a lab.
Derek Smith:And Dr. Abel, I know a lot of crossover there. Is there anything additionally for you there?
Erika Abel:Well, I would just say that my role at Baylor is somewhat unique. A role I'm really thankful for. I was hired into the Honors College as an educator first and a researcher second, I would say. So I didn't come with a major research theme other than to know that my charge was to lead our honors students through honors thesis research. But that's often accomplished by assisting the students in following their ideas and then supplementing with showing them how to do maybe database, library or survey research. So I do some of that, and I follow what the students want to do, but I've learned over time that I need to limit the types of explorations that I'm willing to lead or mentor, unless I be leading something that I don't know what I'm doing or how to do that well.
Erika Abel:So moving forward, I've decided I really only want to lead projects that have to do with cancer prevention or treatment. And I leave that somewhat open. I've developed a few collaborations to make sure that our students have places to go to look for ideas. And what that does for me is, it frees up some of my time as an educator to think about the process of how we teach students to be involved in research and how we create new research opportunities that best shed light on what true human health research programs are like. So that really has become my primary scholarly interest is the way in which we go about involving students in research.
Derek Smith:Why is it so important to both of you? Obviously Baylor has a great grad program and doctoral students, but talk about undergrads specifically. Erika, I'll start with you. Why is it so important to you? Why is it so meaningful to involve undergraduates in research?
Erika Abel:There are multiple reasons that drive me to do as much of this as I can with my free time. And one of them is very personal. I believe you mentioned that Dr. Greathouse and I are both cancer survivors. And for me, my experience with cancer, which was Hodgkin's lymphoma, very curable form of cancer. What it taught me was that I was at school to be a physician because that was the definition of success for me at that time. And I was doing great at it. Being a patient taught me that that really wasn't my skillset to walk with people through diagnoses that may or may not have a good outcome. And what I wanted was to be a part of developing new solutions or ways to prevent disease. And the way that I could do that was through research.
Erika Abel:And it really just truly opened my eyes, having just that one experience. Someone let me into their lab, it opened my eyes to how interesting the career path is, how no two days are the same, you're always learning. And I think for me, I'm not trying to talk a lot of medical students out of going to medical school, but instead, what I want us to be doing is showing them that they can be involved in research alongside clinical careers. Those who have chosen a PhD, well, that's even better. I really love working with those students, showing them what their future will be like, equipping them for it. But with our pre-medicine crowd, my goal there is number one, just to give them an appreciation for the amount of work, effort, thought, care, time consideration that goes into new drugs so that they can trust those drugs or vaccinations, that type of thing.
Erika Abel:And then number two, to make them feel equipped that they could cooperate with someone like Dr. Greathouse, who's trying to do clinical research and get samples from cancer patients that requires cooperation of physicians who understand why we do what we do and how we do what we do. And then finally it makes our students better critical thinkers to be involved in research. So those are the things that keep me going, because it can be tedious and strenuous to take someone from zero experience to high performing, but that's what keeps me going.
Leigh Greathouse:I really echo a lot of what Dr. Abel was saying. For me, I've really figured out that my skillset is in mentoring. While I'm passionate about the science that I do, I feel even more passionate about mentoring students. And I really just love seeing the light go off in their eyes when we have conversations about what their career path is going to be and helping them explore different options like Dr. Abel was saying, when they had only been focused on one career path and had not discovered that there were so many other options out there. And so I feel like I really bring to the table that opportunity to help them think outside the box and make different decisions and give them the opportunity to explore research as being one of those decisions.
Leigh Greathouse:And I don't care what they do for their career path, but I just want them to have a full breadth of understanding of what all possible options are for them. And the other thing that I love is just seeing them grow in their understanding of scientific methods, doing projects on their own, discovering their own ideas and following through with those and making those a reality, whether it be in a publication or a poster, an abstract, that's just so rewarding to me. It's great to make scientific discoveries on my own or with my team, but seeing the students do that on their own is almost more rewarding to me.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Erika Abel and Leigh Greathouse, and Dr. Greathouse you mentioned at the top of this show that you all have that shared experience of being cancer survivors. You met at MD Anderson, how has your relationship grown and what does it mean to both be here on the Baylor faculty advancing some of these dual passions and interests together?
Leigh Greathouse:Well, I think it's obvious that God had his hand in the situation that brought us together again or together as a team. I am just so thankful to have Dr. Abel's work that she does with our team. I couldn't do this without her. I couldn't train nearly the amount of undergrads that we are currently training without her intimate help with all of that. Looking through applications, discovering what students work best in what fields, that's been such a blessing for my research group to have all these additional, very productive, bright, interested undergraduates, helping us to push our research projects forward.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Abel and Dr. Greathouse, and Dr. Abel talking about the Honors College a little bit, we had Dr. Douglas Henry, the Dean of the Honors College on the program last fall, but really talking about what the Honors College is. But for people unfamiliar, how would you describe it, especially if maybe when they hear Honors College, they don't automatically think biology or human science and design, or some of these different things.
Erika Abel:The way I would describe the Honors College is that it's a unit that actually serves the whole campus. So certainly it's not limited just to biology students or to pre-medicine students, and actually it's multifaceted. So it's somewhat difficult to explain all of the things that the Honors College does, but I'll try. We do house two majors, there's a major in great text, but then another major is the university scholar major. And that particular major is designed to help us in recruiting some of the brightest students to Baylor. It's not offered to so many students. Our university scholar students are very important, but that is by no means the full breadth of the type of student we serve. Those students get to do a, choose your own degree plan. And a part of that is they will conduct an honors thesis research process. And so they are automatically a part of the honors program.
Erika Abel:The honors program serves a much larger number of students, and those students can be in anything from English to health science studies, to political science, biology, chemistry. So one misconception I like to battle a little bit is that the Honors College is equal to these specialized degree plans, university scholars. That's not true. We serve all majors. All majors are welcome to take the few courses and great texts that we offer on the honors program. And then also welcome to do the honors thesis there at the end, depending on what their scores are coming in so it does serve high ability students coming in. But what are we trying to do? What does it mean to be an honor student? What we're trying to do there is just add a little bit more to the experience for those students who are super motivated.
Erika Abel:We're looking to help them grow intellectually, spiritually, emotionally. We really focus on formation. So with that, they don't get just their core discipline focused material, but we're also helping them work on doing things like reading the great text. We do a lot of community building that, type of thing. And our focus on primary text that you see with great texts that really culminates in when the students are doing thesis research, they really learn to rely on the original sources of information rather than say, textbooks or websites. They learn to rely on that and even create that new knowledge themselves. So students who are part of the Honors College, they can come from a lot of backgrounds, but what we're trying to get them to do is think more broadly and deeply about not only their education specifically, but their life moving forward and teaching them to rely on primary texts and what they do.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Dr. Erika Abel, clinical professor of biology in the honors program at Baylor. Dr. Leigh Greathouse, associate professor in nutrition sciences in Baylor's human science and design department. Dr. Greathouse, you've had students from Honors College in your lab over the years. And how long have you had them in and how has that maybe facilitated a relationship that we're going to talk about in a little bit that's led to some great opportunities, equipment wise and project wise?
Leigh Greathouse:Well, I've had honor students I think since my lab started. They've been integrated into a variety of projects, either database projects, where they facilitated their own research ideas and did statistical analyses using information from other studies or from studies that we had conducted. They were involved in recruiting subjects, facilitating survey analysis, entering data. More recently though, since Dr. Abel has been on board with our team, we've been able to shepherd multiple honor students through brand new research projects that have just started in my research group. And we've been able to send several students for training, specifically one that has to do with this new anaerobic chamber.
Leigh Greathouse:We were able to send down to Baylor College of medicine to get training on how to use the anaerobic chamber and specifically how to start using this new technology called mini bioreactor array. It's kind of like creating a gut outside of the body. And so we can study how different microbes or microbial communities react to different stimuli or environmental stimuli. And that's an undergraduate project and he's been exceptionally talented and gotten that off the ground and running. And it's ready to go now. So that's been a really exciting culmination of some of the students work that we've had in my lab.
Derek Smith:Well, we certainly want to talk to you about that anaerobic chamber in the partnership, Dr. Greathouse, you've had research funded by what? The National Institute of Health, the department of defense, a number of different high level projects, could you tell us about the need for the anaerobic chamber? And then kind of take us into how you were able to meet that meet?
Leigh Greathouse:When I started my research here in 2015, it wasn't until probably a couple of years into my research program that I realized that having an anaerobic chamber was critical to the work that we were doing, because so much of our understanding of how the gut microbiome works requires us to actually cultivate anaerobic bacteria in an oxygen free environment. And the only way we can study those, is to have an anaerobic chamber. And so really for the past three or four years, I've been trying to figure out a way to buy one of these chambers. They're not inexpensive as you can imagine. And when I talked to Dr. Abel about this, we figured out there would be a potential collaborative opportunity to train honors students on using the anaerobic chamber and develop independent hypotheses to test in different situations.
Leigh Greathouse:And so we discussed this and she came up with a really great idea that I didn't even realize was possible that the Honors College could actually help fund the purchase of one of these anaerobic chambers. And it's a win-win situation. I get the anaerobic chamber to help us facilitate high level research, and undergraduates and the Honors College and other undergraduates outside of Honors College, to get amazing opportunities to test out hypotheses work on larger projects that simulate more research ideas and potential opportunities for internships once they get finished with their degree at Baylor.
Derek Smith:So as you talk about the anaerobic chamber, it's more realistic conditions under which to test, it opens up more capacity. Is that how you would describe that to someone maybe from outside of your discipline, the impact of having this?
Leigh Greathouse:Right. Exactly. So we get to test different types of anaerobic bacteria that are involved in colon cancer progression or increased risk of colon cancer. So we get to ask questions like how do they respond to different dietary factors that we ingest? How do they actually cause or promote cancer? And we can test that by using this anaerobic oxygen free environment and make really great strides in understanding what those communication signals looks like and answering those really important questions regarding colon cancer risk and progression.
Derek Smith:Dr. Abel, when you had that conversation with Dr. Greathouse and realized there was a need that was eventually met through Honors College, what were your thoughts and what helped make that a reality from the Honors College end?
Erika Abel:Well, what I had noticed was that students crave the opportunity to work in labs and because it is taxing on the mentors to teach undergraduates to learn from the ground up, they'll do it because it's the right thing to do and we've got great faculty here at Baylor. But what I wanted to do, because I had this new role that I could take on, was to accommodate as many students as I could in an experience. But what I needed was something that had a renewable hypothesis. When you're trying to help train multiple students year after year, if you're looking at it from the educator standpoint, to save yourself time, you need a situation where you can get a set of protocols developed, you figure out ways to make it easy for undergraduates, and then you want to be able to do it the next year and the next year.
Erika Abel:But that means you need to be able to ask a different question each year to make it fun for the students. And when I heard Leigh talking about the anaerobic chamber and then the other components that went with it, and she said, "Well, of course we would have renewable hypothesis. We can test what happens to the gut under this scenario. We can test what happens if you put this fiber in or that fiber in." And it was just very obvious to me that this was the type of device and setup that would allow us to service the largest number of students. The Honors College does have limited funds, but when we spend those, we want to spend them on events that are going to impact the greatest number of students. So I went back to Dean Henry and I said, "This is a little expensive, but here's what Dr. Greathouse is willing to do for us. We will get a certain number of students placed in her lab per year over the next X number of years," I don't remember the exact details.
Erika Abel:And when you can bring a proposal like that, then you can see the clear value in making the expenditure not only for the experience for the students, but also it is resulting in high profile research that I believe is important. So it's a win-win on both sides. And so to make that partnership a reality, you have to link back to Baylor's generous donors because at some point, these were donor funds and so we're always looking to make more connections like that so that we can create more opportunities here on campus. Right now, what we can do for all professors, if they have an honors student in their lab, each fall, the students can apply for smaller research materials, grants, mostly to cover their tracks in terms of things that they might ruin in the process of learning or just materials they use as they learn. Anyway, we're always looking for good opportunities, but this one with Dr. Greathouse seemed to be really the best thing going at the moment, especially with our shared interests in cancer.
Derek Smith:Well, Dr. Abel, as we had in the final couple of minutes, I want to start with you and then ask you Dr. Greathouse to close. As you think about this partnership and how it can grow things. I mean, obviously great research and opportunities for students, but what are your hopes for the outcomes of this, particularly as you think about the fight that you both are involved in long term?
Leigh Greathouse:Sure. So my hope for the undergrads, which are that they at least sparks the research creativity in them, and that they might pursue a PhD or an MD-PhD, which a couple of our students graduating from my research group have gone on to medical school and are pursuing an MD-PhD program. Currently one that's about to graduate is also going to be pursuing the MD-PhD program. I was really excited to have one student in my lab who not only is going to become an MD, she wants to also get her license as a registered dietician, which just thrills me to death. We are so in need of more physicians who understand nutrition and the power of nutrition to improve the lives of their cancer patients through improved response, reduced malnutrition.
Leigh Greathouse:And that's really one of my overall goals for my undergraduates. Also, to see them succeed in publications for themselves, winning awards and honors that improves their ability to get better educational opportunities for themselves. Also, really gives them this understanding of how critical research components are in not only their later career potentially as a physician, but as a healthcare provider. That they might continue into and on with this research process and do their own research in the future.
Leigh Greathouse:But overall, I think just seeing them succeed in their career and giving them this option to potentially continue to do research is what's still rewarding for me and what I hope to see them go on to do in the future.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. That's very exciting and exciting to see how this partnership has come together. Appreciate you both so much taking the time to share with us today, Dr. Erika Abel, clinical professor of biology in the honors program. And Dr. Leigh Greathouse, associate professor in nutrition sciences in Baylor human science and design department, our guests today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. Reminder, you can hear this and other programs online, baylor.edu/connections, you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.