Exploring Prof Paul Ross’ ‘dual role’ of researcher and director

30 Nov 2023

Prof Paul Ross. Image: Ger McCarthy

Prof Paul Ross discusses exciting microbiome research, the importance of hiring good people and the challenge of bringing results from lab to life.

Prof Paul Ross of University College Cork (UCC) is the director of the APC Microbiome Ireland research centre, which is uncovering the mysteries of gut health.

Ross took up the role leading the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research centre in 2019, guiding it through various projects. Previously, he was the head of the Teagasc Food Programme, which encompassed the Moorepark and Ashtown Food Research Centres, and he was also the head of the College of Science , Engineering and Food Science at UCC.

Speaking to SiliconRepublic.com, Ross said he currently holds a “dual role” as he is an active scientist in APC while being responsible for the research centre’s vision, direction, strategy and “all operational and financial matters”.

The duality of his role was recognised earlier this month, as Ross was named Researcher of the Year 2023 by SFI for his significant contributions to food and gut health research. One of his current focuses is on discovering alternatives to antibiotics – a project which he claims to have found some success in already.

“We are trying to develop microbiome-based solutions that will counter the huge problem of the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria which is one of the major challenges that mankind faces,” Ross said.

At the end of 2022, Ross received a €2.5m grant from the European Research Council to investigate alternatives to antibiotics. He was the first researcher based at UCC to receive an ERC Advanced Grant.

But while Ross is moving forward in his research achievements, he also said APC has been successful in recruiting some “really internationally renowned stars” during his time leading the research centre. He added that people are “the most important”, which places recruitment high on his list of important tasks.

“Hire well and you can halve the amount of work you do – hire not so well and you can double it,” Ross said.

The growth in microbiome research

APC is involved in various research projects that focus on the microbiome – all the various microbes inside our bodies. Ross said that interest in this area of research has grown over time.

“People as consumers are becoming more aware of the trillions of microbes that are in their bodies and how they can influence them,” Ross said. “I think that microbiota research will be transformative for a number of disciplines including microbiology, human nutrition and even clinical medicine.

“For example, recent research is showing that the effectiveness or otherwise of certain drugs is influenced by the human gut microbiota composition.”

When asked about current APC research projects that particularly excite him, Ross said there are “almost too many to mention” but noted those that involve manipulating the microbiome in a particular way have “huge potential for benefitting human health and wellbeing”.

In October, a collaborative study that included APC researchers found evidence that Alzheimer’s symptoms can be transferred to a healthy young organism through the gut microbiome. This research could be used to detect Alzheimer’s before the onset of typical symptoms, which would open up new treatment avenues for patients with the disease.

That same month, APC’s Dr María Rodríguez Aburto discussed her research into how gut microbiomes can impact a developing brain and the potential links to neurodevelopmental disorders.

While research is racing forward under Ross’ leadership, he noted that there can be challenges in translating some of the “exciting results we see in the lab” into “tangible microbiome products in reality”.

“It can be a long road through education, marketing and even legal and regulatory considerations,” Ross said.

Dr Claire Watkins, product innovation lead at PrecisionBiotics in Cork, works with APC Microbiome to transform research into consumer products. “I’m very lucky to be in a position where I can help to innovate and develop new products,” Watkins told SiliconRepublic.com.

She was based at APC during her PhD and described it as “one of the world’s leading centres for microbiome research”.

The future of APC

APC has grand ambitions to provide global leadership in the microbiome research sector and aims to continue attracting the top researchers to the centre.

Ross said he focuses on motivation, advice and praise to get the best out of his staff, as “people need to be happy in their job since it is such a major part of their life”.

One of his plans with APC is to establish a new innovation centre, which Ross said would be a “critical mass for attraction of talented scientists and industry alike”. The formation of a new centre was referenced in APC’s strategic vision in 2021, which has various objectives the organisation aims to achieve by 2026.

For now, Ross appears devoted to the duality of his role, with a focus on both administration and his own research. He achieves this balance thanks to his essential tools, which he listed as “good staff, a computer, a motorbike and plenty of coffee”.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic