Autumn 2021

5 Questions with a Microbiome Expert

A conversation with A. Sloan Devlin

Skin Issue

  • by Ekaterina Pesheva
You study bacteria involved in human health and disease. What is the ultimate goal of your research?
A. Sloan Devlin
A. Sloan Devlin, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS

My lab is interested in learning all it can about the ability of bacteria to make amazing molecules. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of bacterial strains in each healthy human, and they vary from person to person. We think if we can understand the molecules that bacteria produce and what those molecules do, we can understand how these bacteria affect the progression of disease or help maintain human health. In doing so, we may discover new drug targets or even use some of these bacteria-made molecules as drugs to treat disease.

What ignited your interest in the human microbiome?

I am a chemist by training, and as the joke goes, you’re either a chemist who likes to make drugs or a chemist who likes to blow things up. You’re either more interested in biology or in the physical sciences. I was always the chemist who wanted to make drugs, and I wanted to do postdoctoral work in a field where chemistry met biology. During my postdoctoral work with my advisor Michael Fischbach at the University of California, San Francisco, I realized that we really knew almost nothing about the chemistry of the microbiome. I saw a big opportunity to contribute.

What is the most misunderstood aspect of microbiome research?

One big misunderstanding in the general public is the difference between correlation and causation. A headline might be “Microbiome causes Alzheimer’s.” But if you dig deeper, only an association, a correlation, was found. In my lab, and in others in the field, we are really trying to get to the causal relationships. It’s much easier to find correlations but much harder to go the next step and look for actual causation in what bacteria are doing.

You were a champion sailor as an undergrad. Are there parallels between sailing and the process of discovery?

Absolutely! From ages 6 to 21, when I began to focus on science, I sailed more than I did anything else. I think about the parallels a lot. There is a saying that success happens when preparation meets opportunity. It is true in sailing and science. You have to be prepared and take the opportunities when they arise. Both sailing and science also take a long time. Regattas can last a week at a time. You’re out on the water all day, feeling the conditions, and racing all day. The same constant dedication over time in the lab happens in science and discovery.

Which famous figure (dead or alive) would you want to have coffee with?

I think I would pick a female trailblazer. I think Lindsey Vonn would be my choice. She’s roughly my age, and she’s the winningest female skier of all time. But she’s also had a number of crashes and surgeries she’s had to overcome. One of the ways that she was able to break free and win so much is she started skiing on men’s skis. Everyone said she couldn’t do it, that she was going to hurt herself. She proved everybody wrong. She started this movement of women skiing on men’s skis.

Ekaterina Pesheva is the director of science communications and media relations in the HMS Office of Communications and External Relations.

Image: John Soares