Alumni Spotlight

Dr Ruairi Robertson, Researcher and Science Communicator

18 Jun 2020
Dr Ruairi Robertson, PhD Microbiology 2016

To mark World Microbiome Day on 27 June, we chat to London-based researcher and podcast host, Dr Ruairi Robertson and find out what exactly a microbiome is and why being a scientist is like being an entrepreneur.  

Dr Ruairi Robertson completed his PhD in Microbiology with UCC’s APC Microbiome Institute and holds BSc in Human Nutrition from University College Dublin. He was also a visiting researcher at Harvard University Medical School and Massachusetts General HospitalDr Robertson is currently a postdoctoral research fellow in The Blizard Institute, Queen Mary University of London where his research examines the influence of the gut microbiome in early life growth within large cohorts of chronic and severe acute malnutrition in Zimbabwe and Zambia. 

  • Course/subjects studied in UCC and year of graduation?   

PhD Microbiology (2012 - 2016) 

  • What is microbiome and why is it important? 

A microbiome is a group of microbes living together as an ecosystem in a particular environment. As humans we have our own microbiome, all over our body. A majority of the human microbiome is located in the dark, warm, nutrient-rich environment of our intestines, as this is the perfect environment for bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes to grow. Up until quite recently, the common theory was that all bacteria, viruses and other microbes were bad and we tended to label them all as 'germs'. But through some amazing work all around the world in recent years, particularly within APC Microbiome Ireland in UCC, we have begun to discover that most of the microbes in our body are not only harmless, but extremely important for our health. They are important for many different reasons including digesting fibre and other nutrients, training our immune systems to recognise infections and regulating our blood sugar, cholesterol and other health parameters. Unfortunately, though through Westernised lifestyles we have begun damaging our microbiomes with poor diets, excessive antibiotic use and hyper-cleanliness. These changes to our microbiomes may be contributing to the rise in modern chronic diseases including asthma, allergies, diabetes and other conditions. 

  • What do you enjoy most about your job? 

I love the freedom of pursuing scientific questions that I am interested in and the excitement of contributing to improvements in human health. Science is all about discovery and finding answers to the unknowns in the world. Now that I am gaining more independence in my career, I find it extremely exciting to have the freedom to explore anything that I am interested in as part of my career and not be tied down to the interests of other people, companies or commercial interests! At the start of your career, being a scientist is a lot like being an entrepreneur. You have to convince people with money to invest in you and your idea which you believe is important for the world. Then you must build a team to implement your plans and bring your ideas to life. This freedom and opportunity to be on the front-line of biological and medical discovery is what motivates me. 

  • How did your time at UCC help you get to where you are now? 

I had a fantastic time in the four years I spent in UCC. I was lucky enough to end up doing my PhD in APC Microbiome Ireland, one of the leading research centres in the world in my research field. The world-class, collaborative and friendly reputation of the APC really helped me get to where I am now in my field. My time conducting my PhD in UCC provided me with the technical and analytical skills to pursue a career in science, but also the opportunities to pursue my own goals. UCC and the APC were very supportive of me pursuing my science communication interests and career development interests which included being awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct a year of my PhD at Harvard University.  

  • What are your best memories of UCC? 

I have extremely fond memories of day to day life in the lab in the Biosciences Institute and in Teagasc Moorepark where I conducted a lot of my PhD work. I was lucky to make some lifelong friends both in UCC and elsewhere in Cork who made my experience there very enjoyable. I have great memories of all of these peopleeither on the football pitch, in work every day or in one of the many fantastic pubs around Cork (Tom Barry's in particular!). 

  • Have you any advice for students wishing to study microbiology or related disciplines? 

Learn to code! Microbiology and almost every other field of science these days is increasingly dependent on big data. We are now able to collect, generate and store data much more quickly and at a much bigger scale than ever before. Microbiology will rely less and less on 'hands-on' lab experience in the future and much more on data analysis. This will require people with skills in how to efficiently and accurately analyse big data in order to make those new research breakthroughs. Even if it is just through self-taught online R or Python courses, coding/data analysis will be one of the most important skills to learn for future microbiology grads. It is something that I have only forced myself to do in recent years, but I know that it will be crucial for the rest of my career. 

  • Were you involved in any clubs or societies at UCC? 

Some of my best memories outside of the lab in UCC were playing for the staff soccer team, UCC United. During my time with the club we won a league title and played in Turners Cross twice, winning a cup on one of those occasions. I also was very much involved in science communication in UCC through the many different competitions, events and outreach programmes in the university. UCC has a fantastic model for encouraging young scientists (and those from other disciplines) to communicate their research to the general public. I was lucky enough to win an award at the UCC Doctoral Showcase when presenting my PhD work and at other national science communication competitions.  

I have continued my science communication activities throughout my career which has given me some amazing opportunities on national radio, live TV shows and even a TED talk. I have now started a podcast where I interview some of the leading scientists in the world who are researching the human microbiome and discuss the latest developments in the field. 

Find out more about Ruairi’s research at the following links: 

TED Talk: Food for Thought: How your belly controls your brain 

Podcast: Biomes Podcast

Website: www.ruairirobertson.com 

For more on this story contact:

Patricia Finucane: p.finucane@ucc.ie

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