UBC professor named a Johnson & Johnson Scholar in highly competitive global competition

Carolina Tropini

This article originally appeared on the website of the UBC Life Sciences Institute.

UBC's Carolina Tropini, an Assistant Professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, has been named as the winner of this year’s Johnson & Johnson Women in STEM2D Scholars Award in the field of Engineering.

The award provides US$50,000 a year over a three-year period to outstanding female academic leaders working in science, technology, engineering, math, manufacturing and design. Dr. Tropini is the first Canadian to be honoured with this award. Since the launch of the global WiSTEM2D initiative in 2017, only three researchers from non-US institutions have been recognized.

“I am honored to be recognized as a Johnson & Johnson scholar,” says Dr. Tropini. “I am a first-generation college graduate and I have trained in fields that historically have had a very low number of women — physics and engineering. The WiSTEM2D program’s goal of increasing the number of women graduating and pursuing research in these fields has a personal value for me.”

Johnson & Johnson initiated WiSTEM2D as a demonstration of the company’s belief that women can be catalysts for creating healthier people, healthier communities, and a healthier world. Scholars funded by the program must be an assistant female professor or global equivalent faculty at an accredited university, institution or design school.

Dr. Tropini’s research focuses on humans and the microbiota, utilizing cutting edge experimental and computational techniques to study the interactions between the environment in the body, disease, and the microbes that live on and within us. “Human health is intimately connected with our microbiota — a remarkable consortium of trillions of bacteria, fungi and viruses that live symbiotically in and on our bodies,” says Dr. Tropini.

The microbiota is important to our health because it produces compounds that are directly absorbed into the blood, nourishing us, and affecting functions as diverse as digestion, immunity and neurodegeneration.

Dr. Tropini’s lab is currently investigating how disrupted environments, such as the inflamed gut in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), affect the microbiota and its host. “The gut microbiota is unique to each individual,” she says. “It is also malleable, which makes this ecosystem an enticing target for personalized medicine and bioengineering applications to improve health.”

To date, there are few microbiota-based therapies that target control of microbial population dynamics in the body, which Tropini attributes to a lack of understanding of the role the microbiota plays in health. Her previous research demonstrated that the microbiota responds strongly to the gut environment during disease, which underscores the value of this target for microbiota engineering.

“I propose to modify gut bacteria and communities to predictably ameliorate the gut environment, driving the ecosystem to a healthier state” says Tropini. Most human gut diseases lead to changes in the microbiota, which in turn affects gut health. In IBD, which affects 10 million people worldwide, an abnormal microbiota is associated with gut inflammation.

 “It’s a challenging problem and we are tackling it with a multifront approach,” she adds. “Improving the environment in the inflamed gut would be incredibly powerful, and as we take steps towards that goal, we will learn a lot about the biology of the human-microbiota ecosystem.”

Tropini is also excited about the emphasis on mentorship in the WiSTEM2D program. Johnson & Johnson scholars are selected for their capacity to provide vision for girls and women in STEM2D fields.

“I am hopeful that this award can have an impact on my community locally, on the students I mentor and teach, and on the UBC community at a wider scale,” says Tropini. “It is impossible for me to represent the diversity and brilliance of women in engineering at a global scale, but I feel really honored, lucky and grateful for this opportunity, and the possibilities that come with it.” 

The Dean’s Office of UBC’s Faculty of Applied Science played a key role in supporting Dr. Tropini’s nomination for the award.