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Science Pub RVA: Big Data and Your Microbiome

Jen Fettweis

Photo: Jay Paul

Science Pub RVA kicks off a third year of connecting curious citizens and creative scientists over a sip of some sort on October 7th at The Camel. Part of the Virginia Science Festival, Science Pub RVA is joining other science cafes across the Commonwealth to host events for adults on the theme of big data- what it is and how it is used in scientific investigations. In advance of the October 7th Science Pub RVA event, Jennifer Fettweis, the next scientist to walk into a bar, answers a few questions.

Jennifer Fettweis, Ph.D. is a Richmond city dweller, scooter enthusiast, photographer and avid yoga practitioner. She studied mathematics and economics at the University of Virginia and completed her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology at VCU.

In a sentence or two explain what you do work-wise.

I study how the communities of microbes in our bodies impact women’s reproductive health.

Will you be talking exclusively about your research, or what will you be talking about this Tuesday?

No, I’ll touch on it, but I’ll start out with an orientation to the meaning of big data, describe how we work with it and dispel some myths along the way. Additionally, I’ll talk about how research teams have been mining some recently accumulated big data to explore some important relations between microorganisms and our health.

What is the research question on which you’re currently working? One of the things I love about working with an interdisciplinary team is that we are able to tackle big questions. I am currently the project director for two large microbiome projects related to women’s health. Through the Multi-Omic Microbiome Study Pregnancy Initiative, we’re looking at changes in the microbiome throughout pregnancy and how the maternal microbiome influences what microbes an infant is colonized with at birth. With data from 6,000 women, the Vaginal Human Microbiome Project investigations are delving into how microbes are associated with infections, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, obesity and other health conditions.

How does this relate to big data? Microbiome studies are now generating extremely large and diverse data sets. Just the two studies I’m working on may very well reach petabyte-levels of data. (If you had a petabyte of data in an MP3 format, it would take you 2,000 years to play*.) One line of my work is focused on developing new methods for making discoveries in these complex data sets. (Source: *

How does your work fit within the bigger picture Last year, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix as the structure of DNA. Microbial cells outnumber human cells by a factor of ten. Sometimes we as scientists refer to the genetic content of these microbes as our second genome. While the draft version of the human genome has been available since 2001, it’s only been in the last couple of years that we’ve even developed a sketch of the organisms and genes in the human microbiome. While this field of research is still in the early stage, it’s already clear that our microbes play an important role in many health conditions including preterm delivery in pregnancy, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease and mental health disorders.

Do you have personal favorite sources for learning about other kinds of science? I love RadioLab. The co-hosts brilliantly take a playful approach to tackle big concepts and serious content. When I’m actively interested in something specific outside my field, I often first check out to see what is freely available on Google Books.

Learn more about The Human Microbiome:

NPR video: “The Invisible Universe of The Human Microbiome”


NPR story: “Finally, A Map Of All The Microbes On Your Body

NPR story: “From Birth, Our Microbes Become As Personal As A Fingerprint

Don’t miss this next Science Pub RVA event: Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"Big Data and Your Microbiome: Getting to know our fellow travelers"

Time: 5:30 p.m. Doors open, go mingle • 6:15- 7:30 p.m. Program

Location: The Camel

1621 West Broad Street

Richmond, VA 23219

Article by: Cynthia Gibbs, Director, Science Pub RVA