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Dr Laura Glendinning on studying microorganisms in poultry

Researching communities of bacteria in animals’ guts, being awarded a Chancellor’s Fellowship by the University, and advocating for equality and inclusion on campus.

Laura Glendinning

Dr Laura Glendinning is a Chancellor’s Fellow who specialises in studying microorganisms in animal guts. In this interview she tell us about her hopes to become the first to understand these in Scottish red grouse, how she built resilience as a scientist, and her dream to open and manage a games cafe.

Could you tell me about your work, in a nutshell?

I research the communities of bacteria that live inside the guts of different livestock species. I'm mainly interested in birds and understanding how we might feed them a more sustainable, high fibre diet to decrease competition for food between humans and livestock. I mostly look at chicken guts, and I am also interested in red grouse. Chickens in particular are fed quite a low fibre diet, so they don't have many fibre-fermenting bacteria in their gut. Red grouse, however, live mainly on a heather diet, so it's very high in fibre. I think because of their fibrous diet they are likely to have a very interesting gut microbiota, and it has never been characterised before, so I'm fascinated to see what kind of interesting fibre fermenting bacteria we might find in there. I’m hoping to be one of the first people to study gut microbes in red grouse.

I also do research in ruminants and some companion animals as well. I'm particularly interested in how we can manipulate the communities of bacteria in animals’ guts in order to make livestock farming more sustainable.

What was your inspiration to become a scientist?

My inspiration to become a microbiologist was definitely my biology teacher at school. He was trained as a microbiologist and he filled his classroom with enthusiasm. Every kid in that class ended up wanting to be a scientist; he was just one of those incredibly inspiring teachers.

Congratulations on being awarded a Chancellor's Fellowship from the University. Could you tell me about the project that you'll be working on?

My project is all about trying to understand fibre fermentation in birds, so that we can understand how to feed them more sustainably.

There is a drive within poultry farming to feed birds a more sustainable diet. At the moment, poultry diets are high in quality grains that could be fed directly to humans. This creates competition for food between humans and poultry. If we can get birds to be able to eat a higher fibre diet made from the waste from human food production, such as oat husks or beet pulp, we can feed them a more sustainable diet, as they won’t be competing with humans for food. This would mean making their gut microbiota better for fibre, so that is the main driver for my research.

One of the issues with studying bacterial communities generally is that it's quite difficult to look at their function. People tend to identify and characterise what's there, and leave it at that. I want to move the field beyond that, looking at how these micro communities actually work. I'll be doing that in chickens and in red grouse, and culturing the bacteria to see what they do in-vitro.

Do you have a favourite project that you've worked on?

My favorite project so far is my current collaboration with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Addis Ababa to look at how climate and geography affect indigenous Ethiopian chickens. We found really interesting results that show that when you have chickens at really high altitudes, it affects their gut bacteria in strange and interesting ways.

I've also really enjoyed working with the Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre on campus. I designed their Pondering Pond Life activity, a microbiology toolkit to help schoolchildren investigate pond water microorganisms. That was really interesting, but also challenging, because we had to deliver it during the Covid pandemic. I learned a lot - we had to develop online resources and show teachers how to use a microscope remotely over Microsoft Teams, which was an interesting challenge. I'm surprised it worked, to be honest.

What are some of the challenges that you face as a scientist?

I think the biggest struggle is securing funding. I've been successful in getting a fellowship, but I've applied for probably around 10 fellowships in order to get one. It’s been years of having to be very resilient, and learning to accept failure as a part of the process. In my experience, you learn from each failure and eventually if you're persistent, you will get something. But it can be quite demotivating.

On top of being a scientist, you're also the chair of the campus Socioeconomic Diversity and Inclusion Sub- Committee. How did you come across that opportunity, and what motivated you to pursue it?

I've always been interested in equality, diversity and inclusion generally. I volunteered to be part of the committee at a time when we were setting up sub-committees to deal with specific issues on campus, such as race or LGBTQ+ issues. One of the suggestions was that we should have a sub-committee that ensures that anyone, regardless of their socioeconomic background or their pay, could feel comfortable and included in campus culture here in Easter Bush. I volunteered to become the chair of that, which has been particularly interesting because we have been at the forefront of highlighting issues that our finance and HR system, People & Money, has caused, particularly financial problems. It's been an interesting experience for the past few months.

If you could have a cup of tea with anyone, who would it be?

I really don't like meeting famous people. I'm a board game nerd and I've had the opportunity to meet designers of board games, I have got very close to them, and then been terrified and walked away. So really, if I had to sit down and have a cup of tea with anyone, it would probably just be my mam to have a good chat. It wouldn't be a famous person.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you like to be doing?

I'd like to be running a board game cafe. It's always been the back-up plan for me and a few of my friends. I would be the one in charge of choosing the game library and teaching people who come in the cafe, and my friends would be in charge of baking the cakes and dealing with the tills. It's always been in the background. If everything goes wrong, board game cafe it is.