CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) and UBC’s response: please review the general information and FAQs and Postdoc-specific information.

Jen Nguyen

Killam Postdoctoral Research Fellow Jen Nguyen is researching bacterial spatial organization as a microscale mechanism of community resilience.

Jen Nguyen sitting at their desk
Home town
San Jose
United States
Microbiology & Immunology
Carolina Tropini
Year PDF started

Research topic

Bacterial spatial organization as a microscale mechanism of community resilience

Research Description

A spatial understanding of the organization of living systems is required to understand system function. Microbial communities are critical for the homeostasis of all ecosystems, yet how these communities control ecosystem dynamics remains unclear. Studies of the temporal dynamics in microbial communities largely rely on bulk data that average over spatial heterogeneity in microbial distribution. This study explores how the microscopic localization of individual bacteria can determine community dynamics by focusing on the response of the colonic microbiota to diarrhea. Diarrhea is known to trigger the long-term disappearance of certain bacterial taxa and the long-term colonization of others. Diarrhea also depletes the mucus layer that normally lines the intestinal epithelium. Because intestinal mucus is a major structural and biochemical niche, I hypothesize that diarrhea-induced loss of mucus may cause lasting changes in bacterial spatial organization, potentially altering the taxonomic composition of the microbiota. To test this, I will develop a microfluidic system to track bacterial movement in a structural mimic of the mucus and fluid flow in the gut. I will also generate a spatio-temporal map from pre- and post-diarrheal guts to link in situ spatial organization with whole community composition. Together, this multiscale data will unveil single-cell behaviors that underlie changes in ecosystem composition and function.

Why did you decide to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship at UBC? Did you consider other opportunities?

I did consider other opportunities! I felt really great about the community I met during my interview, and this community – combined with the research topic – convinced me to come to UBC. The two other lab members at the time, Deanna Pepin and Kat Ng, are a joy to chat life and science with. I also got to chat with a couple other young faculty members and was moved by the care and attention they took towards looking out for what's best for both me and my now advisor, Carolina Tropini.

What specifically attracted you to your research group?

My advisor, Carolina Tropini, has recently characterized how diarrhea can induce lasting changes in the bacterial species composing intestinal communities (Tropini et al., 2018). Her discovery that these compositional changes coincided with temporary changes to mucus structure led me to wonder about the importance of physical structures in determining how bacterial communities change. I approached her proposing a project combining my expertise on single-cell measurements amidst environmental change with her lab’s focus on models of perturbation to the gut microbiota. I feel excited by this obvious complementation in our respective expertise – I think we have a unique combination that’s perfect to discover single-cell mechanisms underlying ecosystem change!

What advice do you have for new postdoctoral fellows?

While tempting, try not to limit yourself by what seems like the “standard” path. Lean into your strengths instead, and focus on what’s truly important to you. There’s a lot of possibility out there!

What do you like to do for fun?

I love drawing, painting, hiking, swimming, yoga, reading, cooking and quality time with friends and family. I also find great joy and comfort in petting animals.

What is the most enjoyable aspect of your postdoctoral fellowship?

I love getting to meet and work with inspiring and passionate people. My ability to be a good scientist and human are largely thanks to people I have met during my path, including those I have come to know during this fellowship.

What does receiving this award mean for your career?

To me, receiving this award means that a project I have conceived has been acknowledged, which is a hugely positive affirmation. I love this project and see great potential to learn from it. It’s really wonderful to realize that many others can see promise and meaning in it too!