New faculty profile: Vanessa Leone focuses on microbiome and animal biologics research

Vanessa Leone joined the UW–Madison faculty in July 2020 as an assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up? My hometown by zipcode is Colgate, WI which is an unincorporated town sandwiched between the village of Richfield and the town of Lisbon in Southeast, WI. I attended Richfield Elementary School and Hartford Union High School, so it’s always been complicated to describe where I actually grew up!

What is your educational/professional background (including your previous position)? I received my undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees in Animal Sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After I finished graduate school, I moved just a little south to the University of Chicago where I was a postdoc and then Instructor in the Department of Medicine, Section of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, & Nutrition.

How did you get into your field of research? My Ph.D. in Animal Sciences was heavily focused on nutrition and dietary supplements in chickens, particularly conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which was discovered on UW’s campus and patented through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). As a grad student, we were required to take a topic-driven seminar class, where we chose to present various topics focused on the gastrointestinal tract. At the time, due to advances in sequencing technologies, studies of the gut microbiome were reemerging, emphasizing its importance as a key physiological mediator. In that seminar series, I became fascinated with how this acquired microbial “organ system” could impact our bodies, influencing both health and disease and how intricately intertwined it is with dietary intake. With my nutrition background, I decided to jump head-first into studying the microbiome and fortunately procured a postdoctoral position with a world-renowned expert in the field. I focused on studying what our gut microbes are doing during the day vs. the night and how this becomes dysregulated by changes in diet, contributing to metabolic diseases like obesity. It’s my hope to bring what I learned in the preclinical and clinical setting back to agriculture, where microbiomes are crucial to nearly every aspect — from soil health and crop production to livestock health and wellness and the long-term health of farmers producing these invaluable commodities.

What are the main goals of your current research program? Despite many advances in microbiome research, much of the findings in regard to human and animal health vs. disease remain associative. The overall goals of my research are to move beyond association and identify the causative role microbes play in promoting wellness or contribute to complex disease development. By using multi-pronged approaches, my lab aims to identify novel microbiome-derived strategies that can be used to improve the metabolic health of humans and companion animals as well as promote agricultural animal immune, health, and growth/production outcomes. The new Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery (MSABD) program offers unique opportunities to explore the microbiome in a farm to fork setting, which can have many implications for animal health and welfare as well as the transfer of foodborne pathogens and food spoilage organisms through processing to consumable products. It’s an incredibly exciting opportunity to merge my animal sciences and microbiome training in this important arena.

What attracted you to UW-Madison? UW-Madison has this unique, collaborative atmosphere that you don’t find everywhere. All the investigators are interested in finding answers to big questions, and not just on a knowledge-for-knowledge basis, but to actually translate their findings into treatments or products. It is truly a different way of thinking. Growing up in Wisconsin, I didn’t realize how spoiled I was to have a world-class research powerhouse essentially in my backyard. Attending undergrad and grad school here opened my eyes to things I never would have imagined from my small town. When I was searching for academic positions, UW-Madison was at the top of my list. Thankfully, the stars aligned and here I am!

What was your first visit to campus like? As a prospective undergraduate, I never even visited campus, I just knew I wanted to be a Badger! I was actually waitlisted at first, but found myself with a late acceptance and I didn’t hesitate to declare my intent to embark on my higher ed experience at UW. Being on campus was intimidating initially, but I matured into it and got to know many of my professors. Coming back for my on-campus interview, as I drove up Park Street, I rolled down my window, honked my horn, and yelled, “I’m baaaaackkk, Madison!” Despite a few odd looks from pedestrians, it definitely felt like a homecoming!

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with? I hope all students feel that science in general is accessible. The scientific method that we use to develop testable hypotheses, ask questions, and design experiments is not just for science but can be used by everybody to sense, adjust, and navigate our world, learning from “mistakes” to be better the next time. Animal agriculture, in particular, is a cross-disciplinary field impacting nearly everything in our daily lives, requiring people of diverse backgrounds with unique experiences to advance the field to create new solutions that can have far-reaching influences on the global food supply and humanity in general. The question for my students is always, “How can you make a difference to be part of the solution, both locally and globally?” Then, its back on me to help them figure out how to achieve their goals.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use? I have a very meager following on Twitter (@VanessaLeone10), but hoping as I become more engaged in research and teaching at UW that I will have more to Tweet about.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how. Absolutely! Identifying co-products from animal agriculture, whether microbially-derived or otherwise, has the capacity to directly add value to those commodities for the Wisconsin producer. Animal biologics can be used to improve the health and well-being of humans and animals alike, both locally within our state and abroad. We are poised to identify novel solutions that grow the state-wide ag economy through development of novel biomedical start-ups that can draw big industry partners. These advances will ultimately allow us to retain our well-trained students in Wisconsin and attract a diverse pool of skilled individuals from across the world while benefiting all Wisconsinites.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties? The original thinking about the gut microbiome was that the microbial cells encompassing it outnumber human cells 10:1. That’s a lot of microbial biomass! However, these initial calculations were based on an imprecise assumption that all body sites house as many microorganisms as the colon, which has the largest numbers and most diverse populations of microbes. We’ve learned that even in the intestine, there is a gradient in the numbers and types of microbes from mouth to anus. Mathematical modeling and refinement of these calculations have shown microbial cells actually outnumber human cells 1.3 to 1. That’s still a lot of microbes, but not nearly as many as originally estimated!

What are your hobbies and other interests? Outside of the lab, I enjoy horseback riding, singing, cycling, yoga, and spending time with family, friends, and my cat.