Kombucha is a drink that has become popular in the United States in recent years because of its supposed health benefits, but few can explain whether those benefits are scientifically or clinically true.
Rachel DuMez is a doctoral candidate who participated in The Graduate School’s annualThree Minute Thesiscompetition, and her research seeks to answer this question. The competition offers graduate students the opportunity to sharpen their communication skills when it comes to effectively communicating their research to a non-scientific audience.
Studying a drink popular in health circles wasn’t where DuMez thought pursuing a graduate degree would lead her, but through diverse doctoral rotations and a chance meeting with her future principal investigator, she found a found a laboratory at Carolina that would enable her to combine her interests.
“Although I had a personal interest in nutrition, metabolism and the gut biome, I never really considered integrating it into my scientific pursuits,” DuMez said. “Congratulations, UNC-Chapel Hill is an extremely collaborative place. Therefore,it was very useful to be able to use the resources we have on campus.”
DuMez and Assistant ProfessorRob Dowenworked to create an interdisciplinary research project, including connecting with experts in nutrition of theUNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.She also works togetherAzcarate dangerthe director of the Microbiome Core Facility, which brings together people with an interest in microbiome communities and interactions.
Within theDove LabDuMez studies the metabolism ofCaenorhabditis elegans(C. elegans) – tiny worms only about a millimeter long – as a model system to learn more about the purported health benefits of kombucha. Due to the abundant variety of microbes in our human digestive tracts, it can be difficult to find a clear connection between kombucha and its benefits.C. eleganswith lifespans of only a month or so and a simple gut for observation, provides a solution to this challenge.
“In worms, the relevant metabolic processes we are interested in are simpler, but highly conserved in humans,“DuMez said. “Therefore, they are a good model system to gain a better understanding of what can happen on a biological level when animals consume kombucha. In the future, we can take a very hypothesis-driven approach to study whether the same paradigms we see in worms hold true in higher-level organisms such as mice.”
Her research so far has shown an established gut microbiome, extended life and reduced fat storageinC. elegansusing a kombucha-exclusive diet. Based on her presentation of this research, she won this year’s People’s Choice Award during the Three Minute Thesis competition.
“It’s a very valuable exercise regardless of the platform you’re going to share it on,” DuMez said. “But I thought that this year, since the competition would be personal, there’s another layer of what you have to practice and what you have to prepare for. I was definitely excited to do it.”
The Three Minute Thesis competition helped DuMez communicate her research to others, but it also satisfied a personal goal she wanted to achieve in graduate school.
“One of my goals in graduate school was to become a better communicator of my science and gain more confidence in talking about my science,” DuMez said. The Graduate School’s professional skills campwhich she participated in during the fall of 2021,allowed her to get a boost to achieve that goal.
“The bootcamp was very useful.As part of that experience we had to pre–and post videos. We had pretty much already put together a three-minute thesis, so they encouraged us to submit it to the competition, since we had pretty much already done it as part of the bootcamp.This video submission earned her a spot in the top 10 2021 Three Minute Thesis Competition.
As for after graduation, DuMez is unsure if her studies will lead her to work in industry or notacademia, but shekombucha research, in addition to the communication skills she gained, will serve as her driving force.