FameLab Ireland 2020 winner reveals what led him to become a researcher

29 Apr 2020

Simon Spichak. Image: FameLab Ireland

Simon Spichak of UCC, winner of the 2020 Irish FameLab finals, discusses his efforts to better understand the brain’s influence in our gut.

Simon Spichak of University College Cork (UCC) and APC Microbiome Ireland has been named winner of the 2020 FameLab Ireland finals. The competition, organised by the British Council and funded by Science Foundation Ireland, asks scientists to describe their research in just three minutes in the most engaging way possible.

As with most events during the coronavirus pandemic, the competition was held online with 10 finalists based across the country taking part. However, it was Canadian-native Spichak who was named as the overall winner. He will now represent Ireland at the international finals to be held at the Cheltenham Science Festival later this year.

After completing his BSc specialising in neuroscience at the University of Toronto in 2017, Spichak made the move to UCC to become a PhD candidate and an Irish Research Council postgraduate scholar under Prof John F Cryan and Prof Ted G Dinan.

Prior to the competition, we asked Spichak to take part in our Science Uncovered series to tell us more about his current research.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I have always been curious about the brain and how it works. For the longest time I wanted to become a doctor, but I realised a career in research would be a better fit for me. There is nothing like the excitement of discovering something novel, or the catharsis of finally figuring out a way to solve a problem!

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I am working on understanding how the trillions of microorganisms residing in the gut of humans and mice alike, the microbiota, are able to both influence and be influenced by the brain.

I am particularly focused on bacterial by-products of fermentable fibres, called short-chain fatty acids, on the immune system of the brain. It turns out that the immune system within the brain is very complex and important for proper neurodevelopment. This led me to further learn about bioinformatics and how to use it in my research, which was not at all what I would be expecting.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

The bacteria in the gut respond in real time to many factors including stress, diet and antibiotics. If these microbes can indeed influence neurodevelopment, we can then look to counteract any negative impacts of these factors through the microbiota.

Since these microbes can change in composition, we can potentially change what kinds of metabolites and signalling molecules they produce and thus alter activity in the brain. Modifications through diet would be non-invasive and would be able to complement existing therapeutic options for these disorders.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Many products involving specific bacterial strains, or fermentable fibres, are currently in development for a range of uses. Recently, a microbiome-based intervention consisting of a fermentable fibre, called oligomannate, has begun a clinical trial for treating some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. There is a huge opportunity to complement and improve existing treatments through microbiota modification.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

This field of study evolves incredibly quickly and requires me to keep up with all of the new literature. Not only do I need to learn about the brain and behaviour, I also need to keep learning about the microbiome and gut physiology.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

There are a few misconceptions in this field that we actively work to address. Starting from a young age, kids need to learn that microbes are neither good nor bad. Indeed, there are some disease-causing bacteria, but there are also microbes required for healthy development and digestion. Whenever I speak to a group of children about this field, I make sure to emphasise this.

FameLab is an excellent way to disseminate my research and science. It teaches scientists that may not always be the best communicators to engage a general audience and detail complicated concepts in only three minutes. Events like these are necessary for addressing these and other misconceptions in science, as well as getting people more excited about the world around them.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I hope that researchers will be able to develop newer treatments for anxiety and depression, accompanied with an even better understanding of what exactly underlies these common disorders.

It would also be important to tackle the issue of climate change in a scalable way, through renewable energy and technologies to recycle plastic as well as other pollutants.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.