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Researcher Spotlight Series
The College of Medicine and Health prides itself on its greatest resource – our people.
Staff within the CoMH and affiliated healthcare institutions are committed and dedicated, and constantly innovate in both teaching and research.
The partnership among academia, the health and social care service, industry and policy makers is essential to promote, facilitate, translate and implement research advances in a timely manner. Better health and improved treatment outcomes for patients are the rewards for this effort.
The CoMH aims to build on this ecosystem, strengthen our research infrastructure, and above all, support our clinical and academic staff in their research. Our future development relies on harnessing and championing the immense talent within our college and affiliated healthcare institutions, through supporting people to increase their collaborative research.
Our CoMH Researcher Spotlight Series aims to showcase some of the diverse range of cutting edge research being undertaken by researchers at all career stages, providing an insight into the motivation behind their rewarding careers and highlighting opportunities for network building and further collaboration.
Meet María Rodriguez Aburto, PhD
Dr María Rodriguez Aburto is a Senior Lecturer, Group Leader and ERC-funded Investigator based in UCC's Dept. Anatomy & Neuroscience and APC Microbiome Ireland.
María was born in Madrid, Spain, where she studied biology in the Autonomous University of Madrid. She obtained a PhD in inner ear development and neurogenesis in the Neurobiology of Hearing lab at the Biomedical Research Institute, Madrid. Dr Rodriguez Aburto studied the role of Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF1) in inner ear neuronal survival and differentiation, as well as the importance of cellular autophagy in driving inner ear neurogenesis.
Dr Rodriguez Aburto then undertook a Postdoctoral position in the Neuro and Vascular Guidance Group at The Buchmann Institute for Molecular Life Sciences in Frankfurt, Germany. Her research focused on exploring the role of Reelin in neurovascular communication in the developing brain.
María obtained a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship to join Professor John Cryan’s group at UCC/APC Microbiome Ireland to study the role of early-life gut microbiota in the development of the blood-brain barrier and its impact in neurodevelopment. Dr María Rodriguez Aburto has also been awarded a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant of €1.75m to support her research project RADIOGUT: Radial Glia as Neurodevelopmental Mediators of Gut Microbiota Signals.
María's Career - in her own words
Why did you choose to study biology at undergraduate level in Madrid?
I have been always curious about the natural world, as a child I used to spend hours looking at wildlife in gardens and adopting birds and dogs. It just felt natural for me to become a biologist.
Why did you decide to undertake a PhD in inner ear development and neurogenesis?
I found a project involving developmental biology and the sense of hearing really interesting due to my love for music. I’m very grateful to my supervisors Prof. Isabel Varela-Nieto and Dr. Marta Magariños for their support and enthusiasm for research, which was also a key aspect for me to undertake that PhD project.
Why did you decide to move to Cork and do you enjoy working and living in here?
At some point during my postdoctoral studies in Germany, in the Neurovascular Guidance Team led by Prof. Amparo Acker-Palmer, I started to read about the gut microbiota and its role in modulating different processes, including the brain. This concept blew my mind, and I decided to pursue a career focusing on understanding more of this. Coming to Cork, to UCC and APC Microbiome Ireland, has allowed me to fulfil this ambitious goal. Merging my previous experience in neurovascular development with the microbiota-gut brain axis field has been incredibly successful and rewarding. I have a team of fantastic researchers, and we still work in close collaboration with the entire microbiota-gut brain axis team.
Who has influenced your research the most and why?
I can name many people. My grandfather was an important architect in Spain, and I always remember him reading books about mathematics and playing chess. My grandmother studied psychology after having 9 children and had her own practice. My mother became a pilot in the 80s when no other woman did and my father became a pilot too with no economic resources, by achieving a stellar academic career in the Spanish air force. So I’m far from short of fantastic role models. My husband is a great scientist too and he also investigates how gut microbiota modulates brain and behaviour, of course we discuss a lot about science, which naturally influences my research.
What is innovative about your research?
My research is based on a concept that my mentor Prof. John Cryan told me once: “Microbes were here first, so there has never been a brain without microbial signals.” That revelation sparked some of my current research interests on trying to understand how microbial signals shape the developing brain as this probably has been happening throughout the evolution of nervous systems.
What do you think are your most significant research accomplishments?
Many neuroscientists still consider blood vessels as mere carriers of oxygen and nutrients. However, during my postdoctoral time in Germany, I along with my colleagues challenged that view by publishing a seminal work (Science 2018) describing the importance of blood vessels as active orchestrators of the developing brain structure.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your work?
Now that I have my own team, I really enjoy mentoring my team members, and seeing them excited and motivated with their research and even innovating with their own ideas. So I’m also learning a lot from them. You can find out more about my teak at Aburto Lab.
What has been the highlight of your career to date and why?
Being awarded an ERC Starting Grant! 3 years ago I would have never believed I could achieve that. I was also successful in the SFI Pathway Programme, which was also very competitive, and for which I feel really grateful.
What advice would you give to students interested in your field of study?
I would advise them to follow their passion in research, the be curious, and to believe in themselves and their ideas. And to be always aware of what they know but even more so of what they still don’t know. As the Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus said: ‘You can’t learn what you think you already know’.
Your future research plans?
I’m very interested in how gut microbiota during prenatal and postnatal life can modulate neurodevelopment, and how that can ultimately be leveraged to ameliorate underlying neurodevelopmental processes of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism or schizophrenia. I’m also interested in how different healthy microbiota compositions across populations could be a driver for evolution and adaptation of the developing brain.
To find out more about María's research, please click on the links below:
Marie Curie Individual Fellowship Award