Understanding how the microbiome impacts health: A Q&A with Emily Balskus, National Laureate of the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists

Dr. Emily Balskus, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, has been named a Laureate of the 2019 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists in the chemistry category. The $250,000 prize is awarded by the Blavatnik Family Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Balskus is leading breakthrough research on the human gut microbiome and deciphering its role in health and disease. At the Blavatnik Science Symposium in New York City this past July, Balskus discussed her thoughts on winning the prestigious title and what advice she would give to rising scientists.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What’s been the response from your colleagues, friends, and family on being recognized for the Award?

It’s been wonderful. My family has always been proud and encouraging. No one in my family has a science background or works in science, but they think it’s amazing to see my work recognized.

My high school chemistry teacher—who has been a pivotal figure in my life helping me realize science was the career path for me—is coming to the ceremony in September, which is very exciting.

Is the recognition a motivator for the whole lab, as well?

Yes! I really see it as a team recognition because we’re such an interdisciplinary group. I try to recruit scientists from multiple disciplines to work together and bring unique perspectives. That way, we can do more than what any of us could do individually.

A lot of things happen in my lab that aren’t standard for a typical chemistry lab, so to see our approach get recognized is a real validation for all of us.

Can you talk a little bit about how the award will help you to expand your research?

One way it will help is by allowing us to move in directions where I currently don’t have much experience. This sort of unrestricted financial support is rare in science and can be incredibly beneficial if we want to try out new, really different ideas or projects.

I’d like to use some of the award to help encourage other women to be involved in science. I’m not sure how exactly I might do that yet, but I’d like to devote part of it to that, whether it’s finding a way to get involved in a project that studies career paths in science or actually supporting young female students or researchers to help more people get involved.

Speaking of women in science, this is the first year that all three Blavatnik National Awards Laureates are women. Is that significant for you?

That was very meaningful to me. I ended up going into science because I was surrounding by amazing mentors at an all-female high school. All my science teachers were women so there was nothing unusual about being a woman in science, and I was surrounded by wonderful peer role models as well. For me, being intellectually engaged and wanting to be a scholar or a leader was normal. I think that experience was critical in building confidence for the rest of my scientific training.

It is wonderful to see three female scientists being recognized this year across the three disciplines. It’ll be fun and I’m looking forward to getting to know the other awardees too, because their science is so fascinating, and really different from my own.

There are top scientists from all fields at the Blavantik Science Symposium. Can you talk about the benefit of engaging with other scientists in and out of your field?

I learned a lot from interacting with other scientists and researchers when I was invited to attend the Blavatnik Science Symposium last year as a 2018 Blavatnik National Finalist and it’s great to be back again this year.

I really love events like these where you’re bringing in scientists from different disciplines. It’s fascinating to see the tools and approaches that are becoming prominent in other disciplines and to think about how they could be leveraged in the context of my research.

And it’s interesting to see what the problems are, what the big questions other disciplines are trying to answer, and how other scientists communicate.

When you talk about how they communicate, do you mean like how they present their theories and their work?

Yes. I like to see how presenters can distill these complex concepts down to a message that anyone can understand. I look for the different ways people can engage an audience during their presentation. I’ve always liked that aspect of scientific communication and presentation. It’s fascinating to see how people from different fields communicate their discoveries.

In my presentation, I talk about ideas by using chemical structures. When talking to a broader audience, I must find a way to make information more accessible to people who aren’t used to looking at chemical structures and thinking about chemical reactivity in the way I do.

What advice would you give to other rising scientists?

There’s a couple of things. I think it’s important to embrace your own unique perspective on science, and your own unique vision and path through science. I think many of the most impactful discoveries come when people can view a problem in a new way or bring a technique or expertise into a field where they haven’t been before.

I think it’s important for young scientists to follow the path where their interests lead them. They should not be worried if that path seems like an unconventional approach or an unusual trajectory. Young scientists must have the confidence—and support—to follow their interests and pursue what they are most excited about.

Also, there’s so much that we can learn by working together. That’s something that I learned pretty late in my career. The branch of chemistry I studied as a graduate student was very solitary. Now, I enjoy getting to work with other people, learning from them, and bringing together different expertise to solve tough problems. So that’s how my lab is now, a diverse group bringing unique perspectives to the table.

What legacy do you hope to leave behind in your field once your career is completed many years from now?

I hope to show the field that the human microbiome (and microbes more broadly) are an amazing source of chemistry. I hope my work on the microbiome will have contributed to the development of new treatments to help patients.

I also hope to leave behind a legacy of trainees who are pursuing their own unique scientific visions and who aren’t afraid to venture into new areas and fields. 

Finally, I hope that I can help to make the field of chemistry and my university a more diverse and inclusive place, both by helping to support the careers of younger scientists and by making larger institutional changes.