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May 16, 2014

Maintaining a healthy gut reaction

Sidonia Fagarasan, Team Leader

How and when did you join RIKEN?

I joined RIKEN in 2001, when a new institute dedicated to the study of immunology was established at the Yokohama campus. I applied for a team leader position at the recently launched Research Center for Allergy and Immunology, which was later reorganized into the RIKEN Center for Integrative Medical Sciences. I was strongly encouraged by my mentor Tasuku Honjo at Kyoto University despite my own fears that I might not be mature enough to take on such a position of leadership. Looking back, I think that the committee members took a risk, and I am grateful to them for it.

Please describe your role at RIKEN.

My team explores the dialogue between the bacteria and immune cells in the gut. The intestine is colonized by trillions of bacteria that perform vital metabolic and protective functions and have an influence on the immune system. 

Our studies thus far have determined that the gut microbial landscape is also shaped by complex interactions with the host immune system. The team that I lead is studying this bidirectional flux of information between the host immune system and bacterial communities in steady-state conditions as a basis for understanding the causes of a breakdown in cooperation that leads to disease.

How did you become interested in your current field of research?

I am a trained gastroenterologist and microbiologist. During my years of practice, I encountered many patients with inflammatory bowel diseases or gastrointestinal infections and realized the need for more research on the fundamentals of host–bacterial interactions in the gut. When I later joined Honjo’s immunology laboratory in Japan, it was a natural transition for me to select a field of study related to mucosal immunology, even though most immunologists at the time were oblivious to the importance of gut microbes for immune system function.

What made you decide to become a scientist?

Image of Sidonia Fagarasan at her lab © 2014 RIKEN

I never intended to become a scientist because the title always sounded very pompous to me. But I was always eager to experiment—to try to find the answers to very simple questions that I considered interesting. I remember reading a book by the Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi on his discovery of vitamin C and being thrilled by the world that he described in those pages. I think it was his book that inspired me to go into research.

What is the best thing about working at RIKEN?

RIKEN is an institution that offers an incredible support system and allows researchers to pursue their scientific quests. I consider RIKEN to be the best possible place to start a scientific career. I believe that it is among the top scientific environments in Japan—perhaps even in the world—and hope that it will continue to be so.

Please tell us about your professional and personal goals.

My goal is to conduct high-quality basic research that could have an impact on translational medicine, thereby fulfilling my dreams as both a medical doctor and a researcher.