Photo provided by Dena Herman

A student takes measurements of a young child at the Canoga Park Child Development Institute.


It’s something we all do every day of our lives. We eat. And what we eat not only provides us with nutrients to stay healthy; it also feeds complex microbial communities that live in our large intestines. This community, known as the gut microbiome, provides us with numerous beneficial traits not encoded by our own genome, but changes in the composition of the gut microbiome have been associated with numerous diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Nutrition and dietetics professor Dena Herman and microbiology professor Gilberto Flores are collaborating with a team of 12 students, comprised mostly of undergraduate science majors, to study the dietary habits of 100 children and how it affects their gut microbiome. The gut microbiome is a microbial ecosystem residing in the human large intestine.

Herman said she hopes the research project will shed light on the relationship between how certain bacteria affect weight gain in children.

The microbiome project began last summer at the Canoga Park Child Development Institute, Early Childhood Center. The CSUN students were given an opportunity to participate and conduct community-based research, something usually kept for graduate students.

“Often times, we think that undergrad students aren’t ready for these kinds of experiences,” Herman explained. “I think these early [research] experiences are really important. The students told me that this experience has been transformative for them.”

Herman said the outcomes of the project could show ways that diet affects the gut microbiome and can help give a better understanding of the origins of obesity in children. The students from both departments learned methods for pediatric nutrition assessment, such as measuring children’s weight and height, called anthropometry, and collected detailed data for 24-hour dietary recalls to understand what the participants are eating.

Herman said she and her students would share their findings with the staff at the institute so that study participants can better understand the purpose of the data collection and how it can be useful for them.

“At the beginning of this semester the students and myself got to go to Dr. Flores’ lab at CSUN and observe how the DNA data are processed and analyzed,” she said. “We had several occasions to watch these processes. It has been a really nice collaborative learning process for the students and myself.”

Herman said the research opportunity inspired many of her students to continue on with graduate degrees and gave them a sense of direction for their careers in science.

“I have to say I’m just so impressed with the students’ enthusiasm and their dedication to this project,” she said. “Six of them are undergraduate students. Of the six, half are applying for master’s degrees. They’ve become so interested in research. The experience has really driven them to take the time to think about what they want to do in their future careers.”