Ann Auman, professor of biology and program director for the study away program in Namibia, is bringing a research component to her students’ semester away in spring 2017 thanks to Wang Center funding.
Auman, a microbiologist, is guiding her students in an experiment studying so-called “gut biology.” Students will swab stool samples (yes, science can be dirty work) and mail them to a lab for testing before and during their time in Namibia to compare how microbes in their bodies change, due to shifts in diet, environmental conditions and more.
Microbes share a lot of information about human health, Auman says. Imbalances may be affected by diseases, such as diabetes. They also may affect a person’s mental health or likelihood of weight gain.
“It’s telling you how you compare to the average healthy person,” Auman said. “Often the gut influences things we didn’t realize.”
It’s not a glamorous task, of course, but it will offer a detailed look into the students’ bodies and provide an educational experience that forces them to look at the research in a new context, Auman said.
“It’s important to recognize that science crosses international boundaries,” she said.
The Wang Center funded gut microbiome sequencing kits for the experiment. The testing amounts to about $50 per person, per sample.
The experiment will contribute to a wide-ranging study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. “They want lots of people to participate,” Auman said of NIH.
Auman already has tested a version of this experiment with capstone students on campus at PLU. They looked at their test results and chose interesting data points to reflect upon and analyze.
In Namibia, students will build upon that approach by also reflecting on the factors they believe impacted the changes, as well as what those findings mean for Namibians’ microbiomes.
Auman noted that many of the diseases that affect microbiomes are often Western diseases.
“Our Western culture tends to diminish the diversity of microbiomes,” she said; the diversity of them correlates with human health.
In other words, more diversity of microbiomes means healthier people.
Auman left for Namibia Jan. 8, 2016, with her 12-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter. Her children are enrolled in a private international school in Windhoek. She’s excited for them to experience the same cultural education that her PLU students will experience.
“We need to be culturally aware,” she said, “whether we’re scientists or just people.”