Postdoc Highlight: Margaret Thairu – Unconventional paths and microbial communities 

By Leo Barolo

The scientific process is rarely straightforward, with experiments often raising more questions than answers. Similarly, a career in academia frequently presents unpredictable challenges and detours.

Dr. Margaret Thairu, a postdoc in the WID investigator labs of Jo Handelsman and Kris Sankaran from the Department of Plant Pathology and Department of Statistics, respectively, learned to expect the unexpected. During both her PhD and postdoc training, her advisors transferred institutions. As a result, her research area changed dramatically.

Originally from Kenya, Thairu received a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences at Florida State University and later pursued a Master’s in entomology at UW-Madison. She continued in the field throughout her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she researched the consequences of a symbiotic relationship between aphids and their obligate bacterial symbiont Buchnera.

When her advisor moved to the University of California Riverside, she followed.

Dr. Margaret Thairu

Thairu came to UW-Madison for postdoctoral training under the direction of Dr. Cameron Currie until he transferred institutions. This time she decided to stay put. With that, Thairu found herself changing labs and research areas halfway through her postdoc. Now, under her two co-advisors, she works with entirely different systems: the rhizosphere and human gut microbiome.

Despite the shift, Thairu draws parallels between her multiple projects: “All my experiences have focused on understanding different types of symbiotic relationships; only the scale, complexity, and system have changed,” she explains.  As a Computation and Informatics in Biology and Medicine (CIBM) training program trainee, Thairu includes genomic and computational aspects in her work.  She explains a bit more about her work and interests.

What was the area of your PhD research?  

My PhD was in Entomology. Specifically, I was interested in the consequences of an ancient symbiotic relationship between aphids and their obligate bacterial symbiont Buchnera. The question that I was focused on answering was: Does a symbiont that has lost most of its regulatory genes regulate its own genome, and how?

And what is your current research about?    

The overall goal of my current projects is to better understand microbial community function.

I currently work on two projects. The first project uses a model microbial community developed by the lab called THOR (The Hitchhikers of the Rhizosphere). THOR is a three-member community that is comprised of microbes that were co-isolated from rhizosphere soil samples. Using this model system, I am interested in understanding how a microbial community responds to invasion by another microbe. Questions I am interested in answering include what makes a community resistant to invasion and what are the characteristics that drive invasiveness.

The other project focuses on the human gut microbiome. We understand that there is a high degree of crosstalk that occurs between our gut microbiome and our brain. Experiments have demonstrated this relationship by showing disease phenotypes, like depression, can be transferred via fecal transplant. On this project we collaborate with researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds, and I am interested in understanding how a mobile app that delivers a mindfulness-based intervention influences both depression symptoms and the gut-microbiome.

What are the big-picture questions and significance of this work?  

In the first project, we are interested in understanding the mechanisms that drive microbial communities. Microbial communities are ubiquitous and play key roles in the proper functioning of the ecosystems that they are found-from maintaining global nutrient cycles to the overall health of an organism. Though members of these communities can be easily characterized; it is often unclear what factors govern the composition and maintenance of the community, as well as the function of the community. Gaining a better understanding of what governs the interactions of microbes within these communities and their potential host is a critical step in potentially manipulating them to achieve specific outcomes such as improved health or increased crop yield.

The significance of the second project lies in the fact that depression is widespread and a major cause of disease burden and disability. The two main methods of managing depression are pharmacological interventions and psychotherapy. However, antidepressants often have low efficacy and unacceptable side effects, and psychotherapy is often inaccessible. As mindfulness-based interventions have been shown to be as effective as antidepressants, an app-delivered mindfulness-based intervention represents a promising alternative or supplement to current modes of treatment. We, however, don’t understand the biological mechanism that drives improved well-being when we practice mindfulness. And so, the overall goal of this project is to uncover the mechanistic role of the gut microbiome in improving well-being when patients engage in mindfulness practice.

You participated in the Computation and Informatics in Biology and Medicine (CIBM) training program. How did that influence your research trajectory?  

Participating in CIBM has allowed me to expand my understanding and experience with a wide breadth of computational and statistical skills that I otherwise would not have been exposed to. These experiences have been an integral part of my postdoctoral training, as those areas were not a focus of my past research. These skills are invaluable, especially as I am working with larger and more complex datasets.

What advice would you give to a young person interested in graduate school or research?  

I think it’s important to find a research area that gives you a sense of purpose and joy even when things are frustrating, not working, or not going to plan. An important part of that is also the environment. So, I would also advise cultivating an environment for yourself that will help sustain you.

What advice would you give to someone considering if they should follow their lab to a new institution?

With every decision, there is always a cost, and being aware of them is helpful in figuring out what is best for you. So, in other words, make the clichéd pro and con list. It is also important to ask yourself what your goals are and what will help you achieve them. Contextualizing your decision in terms of your short and long-term goals can be helpful in grounding yourself when you are in a position of a lot of uncertainty.


Mirroring her own trajectory, Thairu enjoys hobbies with creative and problem-solving aspects, such as pottery, cooking, and baking. “The process of taking a bunch of raw materials and coming up with something new, especially when things don’t always go as planned but still end up working somehow, is really fun for me,” she explains.

Thairu plans to develop her own research lab focused on exploring questions related to microbial symbioses in the future.