Why Studying the Microbiome Is Like Playing Ultimate Frisbee

Postdoc Liz Jones fosters team mentality in science and sports

three images side by side. left: portrait photo of a young woman with crossed arms and a tattoo on her left forearm. Center: close-up of a gloved hand holding a round plate with specks on it. Right: the same young woman, wearing athletic gear on a field at night, leaps to catch a frisbee near her fingertips.

From left: Jones posing for a photo, holding a dish of gut bacteria, and competing. All images in story courtesy of Liz Jones

As an organic chemist at Harvard Medical School, Liz Jones loves to study how bonds are made and broken in the molecules in our bodies.

She manipulates those bonds when building molecular probes to study the gut microbiome and developing potential new drugs to treat microbiome-related illnesses.

She also forges bonds among people, both as a scientist and as an Ultimate Frisbee coach.

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“I’m super drawn to team environments,” said Jones, research fellow in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS.

“I get a lot of satisfaction from reaching goals and being successful, but it means so much more when you get to share that with people,” she said. “The same goes for failures. It feels a lot better to have humans to share that experience with.”

The “why” of the world

Science seemed a natural fit for someone with Jones’ curiosity about why and how things happen.

Jones said she was drawn to the intersection of chemistry and biology because it’s one of the smallest scales people can study.

“I’m sure you could argue that physics is the next scale down, but that was more math than I wanted to do,” she joked.

Learning how chemical reactions happen scratches that itch to know. So does revealing how chemistry can impact biological function — finding ways to use chemistry to deepen humanity’s understanding of life and to treat disease.

Jones shares the story behind one of her science-related tattoos, a celebration of having earned her PhD. Read the transcript | Related story: Written in the Skin