An Interview with Advisor Dr. Elaine Hsiao

We’re thrilled to welcome Dr. Elaine Hsiao to the uBiome Doctor’s Corner blog. Dr. Hsiao is an assistant professor at UCLA in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology. In 2014, she was named one of Forbes’ 30 under 30: Science & Healthcare. Most recently, she was a Packard Fellow in Science and Engineering.


uBiome: What is your primary field of research?

Elaine Hsiao: My lab studies how the microbiome influences brain and behavior. We are interested in how the microbiome impacts the nervous system, how microbes communicate with neurons, how specific species or communities of bacteria interact to perform unique functions, and how microbe-nervous system interactions impact health and disease.


UB: How did you first get involved in the microbiome field? How are you engaging in it now?

EH: I was first exposed to the exciting world of microbial pathogenesis as an undergraduate in microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics. At the time, there was no mention of “normal” microbes in any of my classes. It wasn’t until several years later that I learned more about the microbiome through leisure reading while I worked at Amgen. I continued to follow the field as I did doctoral research in neuroscience.

Now, my laboratory is dedicated to studying the effects of the microbiome on the nervous system. We are investigating the impact of microbiota-immune system interactions on neurodevelopment and examining the microbiome as an interface between gene-environment interactions in neurological diseases. We aim to dissect biological circuits for communication between the gut microbiota and nervous system, toward understanding fundamental biological pathways that influence brain and behavior.


UB: Where do you hope microbiome work will be in 10 years?

EH: There are currently so many unknowns about microbes indigenous to the human body and how they behave. Over the next 10 years, I hope that the microbiome field will advance to achieve a greater understanding of molecular and cellular mechanisms for how the microbiome impacts health and disease. I believe that studying exactly how microbes communicate with the host, through which molecules and under which conditions, will reveal fundamental principles of biology and novel targets for improving diagnoses and treatments for disease.


UB: What professional accomplishment are you most proud of and why?

EH: I am most proud of my postdoctoral mentorship and undergraduate teaching awards from UCLA. Both awards were nominated directly by the post docs and students themselves, which is very meaningful to me. To me, being a good scientist also means being a strong communicator and educator.


UB: What are you finding are the effects of the microbiota on the nervous system?

EH: We find that the microbiota can alter many types of behaviors in animals, including those related to stress, sensation and cognition. We are also finding many pathways by which the microbiota influences the nervous system. For example, we have found that microbes stimulate gut endocrine cells to generate the neurotransmitter and hormone serotonin. We also observe that microbes can mediate the effects of diet on diseases like epilepsy.  


UB: Do you have any personal habits that you have cultivated to improve the health of your own microbiome?

EH: I, of course, avoid taking antibiotics unnecessarily and otherwise try to vary the types of foods I eat.