Did you know there’s a war going on right now, inside your gut? Well kind of – armies of bacteria are fighting it out, trying to colonise your intestines. It’s called your gut microbiome, and it’s the subject of a lot of emerging health science – including for our own army (the human one).
Katie Tooley is one of the scientists at the forefront of this relatively young field of research. She’s studying how the gut microbiome is linked to and can influence cognitive processes such as memory. She works for Defence Science and Technology (DST), which is part of Australia’s Department of Defence and is Australia’s second largest government-funded science organisation.
Katie says she always knew she wanted to work in something health-related, but wasn’t sure what path to take. Coming out of high school, she says she “had a very narrow idea of what working in a lab looked like”. “I’m quite a people-person and the idea of being stuck in a lab with test tubes and cell cultures didn’t appeal to me.”
Loving lab life
During her Health Science degree at the University of Adelaide, Katie realised there was a lot more to research. She took up a couple of projects working in hospitals and loved it. “I quickly realised you can do a lot by working in research and in a lab,” she says.
“I loved reading the literature and looking for gaps in the science and designing projects around that.”
Katie followed up her degree with Honours and a PhD in physiology, then took on several research jobs before landing her current gig at DST 10 years ago. She says while most health science research is around treating illnesses, working in Defence has offered a unique opportunity to focus on preventative health and improving the health of ‘well’ people.
Her research has shown some early positive signs of using probiotics to enhance cognition – a big plus for soldiers on the battlefield – but she warns that doesn’t mean taking a probiotic will help you do better in your next exam. In fact, she says some off-the-shelf probiotics could even do harm.
Thankfully, research like Katie’s is adding to the pool of knowledge that could not only benefit our defence force, but eventually be used in mainstream health – just like the many other defence innovations, like GPS and drones, that have found civilian applications.
– Gemma Chilton
Katie’s study and career pathway
- Bachelor of Health Science (HONS), University of Adelaide
- PhD, Physiology, University of Adelaide
- Research Officer, Women’s and Children’s Health Research Institute
- Human Research Fellow, School of Health Sciences, University
- Human Sciences Analyst, DST
This article was originally published in Careers with STEM: Science. Check out the rest of the issue here.
This article is brought to you in partnership with DST.
Author: Gemma Chilton
Gemma has a degree in journalism from the University of Technology, Sydney and spent a semester studying environmental journalism in Denmark. She has been writing about science and engineering for over a decade.