Three minute thesis showcase
By Taylor Richter
Vaginal microbiome research for science and lay audiences
“The human vagina needs no introduction,” Latéy Bradford announced at the start
of her presentation. Which was good news for her, since she had only three minutes
and one image to describe the nearly five years of research comprising her Ph.D.
dissertation on the human vaginal microbiome.
Bradford was the only presentation in the Three Minute Thesis showcase, as part of
the University of Maryland Baltimore’s 2016 Graduate Research Conference. With
its emphasis on making science accessible to a broader audience, the introduction of
the Three Minute Thesis competition was a perfect fit to the conference’s theme of
science communication. The conference provided students and postdocs from
diverse fields within the university an opportunity to present their research as a
poster, an oral presentation, and, of course, the dreaded Three Minute Thesis. Each
format provides an opportunity for participants to practice sharing their work with
other researchers, science professionals, as well as a lay audience. This is an
important skill for Bradford, an M.D./Ph.D. student whose research is valuable to
researchers, medical professionals, and the public.
In her presentation and poster, Bradford described her research on the human
vaginal microbiome performed in Dr. Jaques Ravel’s lab at the Institute for Genome
Sciences. Using samples from volunteers over a ten-week period, Bradford tracked
the diversity and dynamics of bacteria that live naturally in the vagina. She has
found that vaginal bacterial and fungal communities are variable from person to
person. Different women can harbor unique sets of bacteria and fungus with some
communities remaining relatively the same throughout the course of the study and
others changing drastically every few days.
While there is no one universal community that constitutes a normal or healthy
vagina, a common feature is that vaginal communities tend to be dominated by
bacteria of the genus Lactobacillus. This group of bacteria, perhaps most famous for
the members involved in the fermentation of foods such as yogurt, cheese, pickles
and beer, have long been known to occupy a dominant role in the vaginal
microbiome. It was while looking at the changes in the Lactobacillus community in
relation to yeast infections that Bradford made an important observation: the
number of Lactobacillus in the vagina drops drastically just before the onset of a
yeast infection. While it is not yet known what causes this sudden drop in the
Lactobacillus population, it seems that its removal leaves space for a yeast infection
to take hold.
Bradford hopes that her research will one day lead to changes in women’s health
away from antibiotic treatment of yeast infections, which can lead to antibiotic
resistance and further destabilize microbial communities, to a preventative
approach using a Lactobacillus-based probiotic. Her interests in spanning the
research and health communities make it vital that she be able to communicate her
science to a diverse set of audiences, as she demonstrated at the Graduate Research
Conference. Bradford’s poster (entitled “Dynamics in the Vaginal Ecosystem and
Development of Vulvovaginal Candidiasis”) was an Outstanding Poster Presentation
winner at the afternoon’s award ceremony and her presentation, entitled “Every
Woman’s Battle: A Vaginal Tug-of- War”, took only two minutes and 33 seconds.