Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
Master of Science (in progress)
Bachelor of Science, UBC Okanagan (2015)
“BEHOLD THE TINY GRADUATE.” So began Nishat Tasnim’s address to fellow graduates, guests and dignitaries at the 2015 convocation ceremonies at UBC’s Okanagan campus.
It was a humble and hopeful address, not surprisingly, because what the diminutive scholar lacks in size and pretence she makes up in academic accomplishment, curiosity and gratitude for being the first in her family to hold a university degree.
Tasnim was named UBC Okanagan’s 2015 Undergraduate Co-Researcher of the Year, recognized for her work in the Centre of Microbiome and Inflammatory Disease (CMID) laboratory. As a master’s student, she continues to work under the guidance of Assistant Professors Deanna Gibson and Miranda Hart.
And yet there’s so much more to the Bangladeshi wunderkind, whose many interests range from writing, The Beatles and Stranger Things to science communication, cyborg anthropology and hobnobbing with royalty.
Selected as a student greeter for the royal visit in September 2016, Tasnim met the duke and duchess, William and Kate, and confabbed about her field of study.
“They’re cool,” Tasnim says. “We talked about the future of gut science. I was surprised by the duration of our chat, it was amazing. They asked me questions, and I was happy to offer them dubious health advice!
“In fact, I’m pretty skeptical of broad, sweeping health questions that often come up in conversations such as, ‘Do probiotics work? How about kombucha?’ Well, I don’t know. But I’m glad people are talking about it.”
Our guts teem with tens of trillions of microbes, including up to 1,000 different known intestinal bacterial species. This is our microbiota—a veritable organ, or “acquired” organ, of (sometimes) symbiotic microorganisms unique to each individual, like fingerprints—essential for physiological functions such as digestion and immune responses throughout the entire body.
With Team Gibson, Tasnim investigates microbial health and how it affects susceptibility to commonplace “tummy troubles,” inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), diabetes, obesity, and even developmental disorders such as autism.
The research literally takes guts—and fecal matter—but Tasnim is up to the challenge.
“I’ve always been one to question assumptions of filth and shame,” she says. “The way I see it, our fecal matter tells the smelly story of a perfect symbiosis between man and microbe. Working in poop research helps me understand the science and, in the process, disrupt and reclaim the culture of poop.”
To what end? (Pun intended.)
“The science of poop microbiology as something that can potentially help people with their health is so far progressed that the FDA has announced poop an Investigational New Drug. Boom!”
As Tasnim attests, there is a lot of interest and funding in the microbiome field, leveraging cross-disciplinary microbiome studies aimed at: discovering the microbial community dynamics in and on the human body; developing tools to image, sense and manipulate microbes; and integrating informatics with therapeutics to develop personalized “living medicine.”
“We are so interested in microbes that now architects are learning about ways to manage the indoor microbiome to make urban living spaces harbour more friendly microbes as opposed to angry, invasive ones.
“Microbes are rapidly making their way into processed goods. Not just foodstuffs but also cosmetics like facial moisturizers. The applications of some of this research is sick!”
DRAWN TO THE OKANAGAN
Before university, back home in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where she was born and raised, Tasnim serendipitously found a UBC poster and hung it on her wall. Months later her school principal nominated her for a UBC scholarship. Soon thereafter she was a wide-eyed new student soaking up her undergraduate experience in Kelowna, BC.
Tasnim was a child of many firsts: first child to leave home, first in her family to travel to Canada, and first to attend university. She dreamed of studying in Canada; UBC’s International Leader of Tomorrow award made it a reality. “I was drawn to the idea of this learning community, and eager to find my home there as a member,” she says.
“I felt welcome immediately. At the airport, I was greeted by smiling faces holding up signs with my name. On campus, I met other international students experiencing the same enthusiasm.”
A MATRIX OF KNOWLEDGE & COMMUNITY
“Taking a range of courses deepened my interest in science by situating me in a vast matrix of knowledge,” she says. “My task was to figure out my place in that matrix. In science, the ability to examine and challenge thoughts is essential to learning.”
Programs such as Campus Life, Community Service Learning, International Programs & Services, RezLife, and more became Tasnim’s community. “The broad range of opportunities I have had to deepen my experiences as a student have also shaped my interests and helped me develop leadership and research skills.”
CONNECTING THE WORLD
A cross-pollination of disciplines and knowledge is a pattern of Tasnim’s world experience. “I am passionate about connection,” she says. “I am interested in research projects and academic discourses that connect dots.”
“I enjoy any opportunity to examine binaries, they preoccupy my mind with undecidable thoughts. I think I internalized the idea of a transformative education and look for any opportunity to find learning edges so I can push the boundaries of my own mind.”
Now immersed in master’s-level research, Tasnim is grounded in the processes of transformation and self-actualization. “I feel empowered and supported as I continue to ask questions and learn about my place in the world,” she says.
“I am proud to represent UBC Okanagan in that quest.”
Among other things, Tasnim’s UBC education has helped her with things that she says she can’t learn on her own, such as “connecting the dots between paracosm [a detailed imaginary world] and reality.”
“This happens through interaction with interesting people, and the grit that develops from the academic grind.”
In particular, she says, her studies in microbiology have allowed her to grow her character, explore her hobbies more deeply, and think about what she calls the “artificial/synthetic symbiosis, where we break the nature-human-technology divide as a response to the threat of a technological singularity…
“If I don’t become a functioning member of society, I might just end up a monk who writes sci-fi!”
“I enjoy any opportunity to examine binaries, they preoccupy my mind with undecidable thoughts.”
THE DIRTY SCIENCE
OF GUT HEALTH
Nishat Tasnim is fascinated by the “freaky history” of gut science.
“The gut used to be a black box in the 18th century until some dude got shot in the stomach, survived the wound, and a physician recognized the opportunity to perform 238 experiments on him.
“The fact that it is considered ‘dirty research’ is actually exactly what makes it neat to study!”
Out of all the work that she gets to do—desk work, lab research, teaching—“poop science” communication is far and away her favourite.
“I am known to have the ability to delight and disgust an audience at the same time. As introverted as I am, I especially love being part of science outreach where poop science communication has dramatic effect. (Oh, the number of times I’ve almost made a kid throw up!)
“My second favourite part is learning to code and wrangle with microbial sequence datasets.”
And when life gets too serious, “even reading an article about a novel technique for flatus collection can be considered part of my scholarly activities.”
“This job is great for socially anxious geeks with a penchant for weirdness.”
Story & cover photo
by Chris Bowerman
Video by Media Centre | Studio