Our Interview with Professor Glenn Gibson

Glenn Gibson is a Professor of Food Microbiology at the University of Reading. We caught up with him to find out more about his career and recent involvement in getting science into parliament…


1. Can you tell us about your career path, and how you got to your current position as a Professor of Food Microbiology?

It started with me flunking my A-levels and not getting good enough grades for university. Putting these irritating examinations onto an impressionable 18-year-old who is not interested in school apart from the playing fields and dinners, is a grossly unacceptable form of medieval torture! These were the hardest thing I have ever done. After that (massive) let off, life got easier – although I would not recommend this as a career route. 

My dad suggested an apprenticeship in his sawmill but that sounded like a real job so I immediately discounted it. Thanks to Durham Local Education Authority, I went to Sheffield Polytechnic to do a Higher National Diploma (HND), this was easier than A-levels. Then I got exemption from 2 years of a degree course in biology at Dundee - which was easier than doing the HND. I stayed at Dundee to carry out a PhD on the bacteriology of sediments, which was easier than a BSc. A short postdoctoral position in Dundee (easier than a PhD) led to a research position in a MRC unit at Cambridge researching gut microbiology of Ulcerative Colitis. I found this easier than doing a postdoc. Then I moved to Reading to Head of Department at Institute of Food Research to look at positive aspects of gut microbiology – much easier than microbial pathogenesis. Then I transferred to the University of Reading where someone important called me and said ‘you can become a Professor if you like’ – no exams needed, so the easiest of the lot.


2. What led to your interest in the gut microbiota and health?

I worked with John Cummings and George Macfarlane (a sadly missed friend) in Cambridge on the gut. This was on sulphate-reducing bacteria (my favourite bugs), which were also the focus of my PhD. I then got interested in the more positive side of gut microbiology, starting with probiotics. In 1995, myself and Marcel Roberfroid wrote a review paper which first coined the term prebiotics and synbiotics for microbiota management. It took only about two hours to write but last year was apparently confirmed as the most highly cited functional foods paper ever published, which amazes me. Then I moved to Reading and I have been researching prebiotics since (or rather much cleverer people than me in my group have). 


3. You have been involved in lots of research projects, but could you share with us some of the key projects you have been involved in recently and what were the findings? 

It is the human studies that have generated the most useful information. We have done over 50 of these now. Ones that spring to mind for various reasons are:

Autism – two trials that were really difficult studies to do, but it was inspiring to talk with the children and their carers/parents.

Obesity and metabolic syndrome - because of the current public health interest and the fact that we can do something to help poor people who are probably, rightly, thoroughly fed up of being unhelpfully lectured to about their lifestyle.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome – due to its ubiquity and current lack of good treatments

Elderly persons – because of their dedicated compliance and genuine interest in the research.

Traveller’s diarrhoea – as this allowed me to work with the Rio Olympics 2016 Team GB and other sporting sides (thus combining my enthusiasm for all things sport with microbiology).


4. What does a typical working day look like for you?

Depends where I am. If I am in Reading, it always begins with a game of squash first thing. Then I come into the office and go through emails. Firstly, I attend to (usually meaning delete): 

1) Those beginning with “Greetings” or “Greetings of the day” or “How are you this day?” from people I have never heard of asking me to pay my own way to speak at or chair a conference which has nothing whatsoever to do with my research and attended by what surely must be fictional scientists. 

2) The mass of reviewing requests urgently needed, usually from organisations that have rejected my papers and bounced all of my grants with one sentence dismissals. 

3) Those from my university asking me to justify my professional existence or what undefinable aspect of my job I am doing at particular times of the week. 

4) Any that have used any of the following words in the message – “touch base’, “exploit this space”, “low hanging fruits”, “compass-point roadmap”, “benchmark”, “bandwidth”, “vertical integration”, “run this past you” or “supply chain”.

Then I reply to real ones.

Afterwards, I probably go to a few meetings and/or read/draft things. After that, it is time to go home, or myself and Bob Rastall go and hatch research ideas in the pub.

If I am not in Reading, it usually means I have to give a talk, meet some colleagues, chair something or attend a workshop, etc. So, I spend about 30 mins working out where I am, then another 30 mins remembering what I have to do. Then I go and do it. Then I go home and catch up on all the cricket, football, rugby, tennis or squash games I have missed.


5. You were recently involved in setting up the All Party Parliamentary group (APPG) on the Human Gut Microbiome. Can you tell us a bit more about this group?

It is something that I am going to be committing a lot of time to in the next several years. It came about because of my friend Dr Kirsty Hunter at Nottingham Trent University introducing me to Alan Barnard, who is a world leading campaigner e.g. he gets Prime Ministers elected here and Presidents in the USA (good ones not present company) and loads of other successful ventures. His models for success are outstanding and he has boundless energy. We decided to set this group up and approached Julie Elliott MP to be chair. She agreed and we now have over 60 parliamentarians involved.  


6. Who is present at these meetings? 

It includes a group of MPs and peers that have a growing interest in the field. The aim is to increase knowledge among parliamentarians on the benefits of the gut microbiota and its modulation to improve heath.  We hope it will influence national health services, the media, key opinion leaders, treasury, legislation, government and consumers. There are other members like consultants, the public and pro/prebiotic companies. The rooms have been full every time so far.


7. How would these meetings help to inform debate or influence policy?

Through the APPG meetings themselves (ca 6 per year). We provide information so that the parliamentarians can spread the word but this has to be based upon sound science and reality not hype, for which we invite specific experts to give the evidence. We also plan several reports, factsheets (done by MSc project students), other publicity, a debate in the houses, separate working groups on particular items, a series of “gut critter” talks, an inquiry, research on the MPs own microbiomes, specific constituency relevance and questions to relevant ministers. We are also trying to get this subject onto party manifestos in the event of a general election. 


8. Since launching the group earlier this year, what sorts of topics have been discussed and how have the outcomes of those meetings been? 

I did one on gut microbiology generally at the inaugural APPG meeting. Then we had Graham Waters talk about potential savings for the NHS and treasury if robust probiotics and prebiotics could be applied to certain clinical states. In June, Kirsty and Hannah Macleod (Team GB hockey star) did a double act about the relevance for elite athletes. Hannah brought her gold and bronze Olympic medals. In July, my colleague from Reading Dr Gemma Walton described health benefits of probiotics and prebiotics for the wider community in the UK. Then, in September Gregor Reid is coming from Ontario to go over his brilliant probiotic work in Africa where these interventions are successfully combating childhood diarrhoea and malnutrition in hundreds of thousands of people. We have other experts lined up on C. difficile, specialist populations (military, day care centres, hospitals, etc.), gastroenterology, IBS/IBD and cognitive issues.


9. What do you like to do in your spare time?

Play squash, read novels, watch sport (live if possible), go to the theatre to see plays or comedy shows, go to live music concerts, drive my wife to her archaeology classes, amuse my daughter through my negligible knowledge of social media (I was pressed into a facial network account, or whatever it is called, for 5 minutes the other week, saw the list of “friends” and deleted it) and, of course, beat my son at tennis. 


10. For us to end on...

What do you enjoy the most about your job?

I have made some great friends over the world and it is neither difficult nor boring


What is the most fun place you have ever visited for work and why?

Vancouver - it has everything


If you could give one tip to aspiring students, what would it be?

Take risks, do not hesitate to accept big talks to get yourself noticed, you know more about the subject than anyone, be 100% confident and remember your professional life only gets easier from now on. Obviously, do an interview for Yakult’s Science Digest too.


Can you leave us with any interesting facts about yourself?

Not sure if they are interesting but: 

• I was born in an ambulance and my dad fainted when I arrived

• I accidentally led an entire aeroplane of passengers to a prohibited part of Manchester airport

• I can make animals, swords and hats from balloons

• A family and their luggage fell on me in Paris airport

• I missed the penalty in the final of a football tournament in Cambridge that cost our team the trophy


What is the best thing about living/working in Reading?

The M4 road works


What inspires you?

Anybody dedicated enough to play football for Sunderland or rugby for London Irish or cricket for Durham.