At Mayo Clinic, Wellesley Alumna Continues Senior Thesis Research on Mysteries of Vaginal Microbiomes
When Stephanie Song ’19 started working in the microbiome program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, as a summer intern after her sophomore year at Wellesley, she didn’t have any research experience. That would change by the time she finished her senior thesis studying the vaginal microbiome with Marc Tetel, Dorothy and Charles Jenkins, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience at Wellesley.
Working with Mayo Clinic researcher Nicholas Chia in his lab, Song learned how to analyze the gut microbiome. She continued to work in the Tetel lab throughout the remainder of her time at Wellesley. Song’s work with these two mentors helped guide her senior thesis, in which she investigated how the vaginal microbiome changes with the hormonal shifts of menstruation.
“I got interested in microbiome work in general, somewhat coincidentally,” Song said. When Tetel and Chia were beginning a project together, Song expressed her interest in statistical analysis to them, which microbiome research in particular requires. She also liked how interdisciplinary the field is. “I can use these computational and statistical tool sets, but at the same time it’s so translatable and it’s so relevant to human health,” she said. “It’s such a new field, so there’s a lot of excitement and creativity around it.”
Included in her study were fellow Wellesley College student participants, who agreed to track their food intake, exercise, periods, and moods regularly for 10 weeks. Library and Technology Services helped Song and Tetel develop a web app that participants used to record their data—and it was paired with the nutritional information from Wellesley’s dining services, which made it easier to track meals. In addition, Christen Deveney, associate professor of psychology, collaborated on Song’s thesis by analyzing data on moods.
“Working with other students was probably the most enjoyable aspect of the study,” Song said, “and it is what I found really fulfilling about it because I felt such a personal tie.” Song believes one reason the study worked so well is that the students involved “were really dedicated to contributing to science and knowledge.”
“They gave a lot of feedback and ideas on how to make the study better, such as fixes to software bugs in the app, the idea of incorporating fitness trackers or reminders in future studies, and publicizing the study more among the campus community,” Song said. “That definitely made me more excited to work on the project, knowing that the participants were so invested in this study.”
In doing research for her thesis, Song found that the vaginal microbiome shifts dramatically during menstruation. In an expansion of her thesis, Song’s continued work with Tetel, Chia, and Marina Walther-Antonio was published in July 2020 by the American Society for Microbiology. This research included further evidence that hormones regulate the bacterial microbiome. “You see the bacterial microbiome changing across each participant’s menstrual cycle in a way that reflects the change in hormones that occurs at same time,” Song explained.
They also saw differences in the microbiome depending on the types of hormonal contraceptives participants used—in particular those that contain both estrogens and progestins versus those that are progestin-only—and correlations with diet (being vegetarian) and amount of exercise. The team hopes to track participants over the long term to see if any microbial biomarkers might be linked to certain diseases, such as ovarian cancer.
Song said she is interested in the vaginal microbiome because she’d like to contribute to improving women’s health and to decreasing health disparities. Often, the focus of women’s health and studies of the vaginal microbiome have to do only with fertility and reproduction, Song noted.
“The result is a gap in knowledge about whether the vaginal microbiome is connected with other organ systems, like how the gut microbiome is—for example, is there a vaginal microbiome-gut axis?” Song said. “Moreover, the conflation of ‘women’s health’ with reproductive and gynecological organs is a disservice to those who are not strictly cis-gender women.”
Since graduating, Song has been continuing her work at the Mayo Clinic in Chia’s lab. She is currently applying to M.D./Ph.D. programs, with a goal of staying in academic medicine and research while continuing to work with patients.
“Through talking about this research with various different researchers and professors, I’ve met a lot of people who are also passionate about women's health and health care disparities, who I might not have met if I had solely stuck with studying the gut microbiome,” Song said. “It’s reaffirmed my desire to continue trying to do what I can to decrease disparities in women’s health care.”