This series introduces the public and fellow researchers to our talented scientists. We interview different IGI members to find out who they are and what makes them passionate about science.
Yue Clare Lou recently completed her Ph.D. in the laboratory of Jill Banfield, Director of Microbiology at the IGI, and is now a WIES Fellow. Lou studies the relationship between the gut microbiome and infant health. She recently led the development of a gut microbiome diagnostic platform.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in China, specifically Xiaoshan, Hangzhou. I left home when I was 15 to come to the US for high school. Since then, I have stayed in California!
I don’t have any family members in the US. I lived with different host families in Santa Cruz, where I went to high school. I still keep in contact with them.
What inspired you to make the big move, solo, at age 15?
Growing up, I heard about stories of people studying abroad, and a common theme that they shared was that having the opportunity to live in different places when growing up can enrich one’s experience and potentially sophisticate his or her worldview. This thought of leaving grew stronger as time passed by. I was lucky to have a supportive family, and they made my dream of studying abroad come true.
Why did you become a scientist?
I actually never thought about being a scientist when I was a kid. I was really into performance — piano, public speaking. But then I’ve always had stomach issues and my mom is very into how food can be a panacea to treat health issues. She’s really into Chinese medicines and herbal treatments. I grew up with a lot of these like concoctions that she made at home. I think that made me curious about the connection between food and health and the science behind it.
One thing I hope to study more in the future is the compounds in herbs that are used in Chinese medicine, and combine it with my knowledge of the microbiome.
What inspired you to pursue entrepreneurship and apply to the WIES program?
I’ve been very curious about entrepreneurship, probably because my grandma is an entrepreneur. Before I applied to grad school, I knew that I wanted to create a startup in the space of health and maybe food. I was a nutritional science undergraduate major at Berkeley for a couple of years before I realized that the microbiome could be key to many health-related questions, which made me switch my major to microbiology.
Follow what you’re excited about. If you’re really passionate about something, I don’t think anything will be that challenging or difficult you can get through.
When the WIES program came along, it just felt right up my alley. The startup I’m thinking about is using what I have learned about the microbiome during my Ph.D. as a way to create a science-driven product to help improve people’s lives.
WIES is just a very unique opportunity, and IGI is in a really unique spot where you have top scientists right there, as well as access to VCs, IP lawyers, the Hass business school, and more. So it’s just a perfect opportunity to explore and de-risk the microbiome venture idea I have.
What made you switch to studying the microbiome?
There were a lot of factors, but Michael Pollan has an episode called “Earth” in his documentary Cooked where I first learned about the importance of microbes in our life, from fermentation to digestion. Concurrently, I also read a book called The Good Gut by Dr. Erica Sonnenburg and Dr. Justin Sonnenburg from Stanford. These two factors made me decide to pursue a science career in the microbiome, which involved switching my undergraduate major and applying for graduate school programs.
You’re interested in the connection between food and health. Do you like cooking?
I like cooking and baking a lot! We baked a lot early in the pandemic. I just thought I was like, you know, I could use my microbiology background as a way to make better yummy breads. So we were making sourdough bread and literally just like catching yeast from the air.
It’s fun to hang out with microbiologists because you also talk about making your own kombucha, making yogurt, brewing beer, making wine. I’m very into wine tasting and trying to learn more right now by reading some textbooks and doing some casual tastings with friends. I feel like if science doesn’t work out, maybe I could just work in a winery. It’s really fun. I just really love fermentation!
I also make a lot of herbal teas, just mixing a bunch of things together. It may be a placebo, but I do feel better after I drink them.
Can you tell me about someone or something that keeps you motivated?
The one person that has really inspired me since I was a kid is my maternal grandma. She has this kind of persistence and drive. She was the only person of her seven siblings that made their way out of the countryside in China and came to the city. Eventually, she made a living by taking over a dying company. She’s almost 80 years old now and she still goes to work every single day because she just loves it. She’s passionate about the work and cares about the people in her company. I always felt like I want to be like her. I left home alone to come here. And the sense of responsibility that I have with me, I think it also kind of comes from her. She’s very tough!
Is there any advice that you would give to someone thinking about pursuing a career in science?
Follow what you’re excited about. If you’re really passionate about something, I don’t think anything will be that challenging or difficult you can get through. I’ve met so many supportive people along the way. I think everyone’s success is built on a connective network.
Is there anything else you want to share?
I always see myself as someone that’s not really like a scientist. Imposter syndrome kicked in really hard during grad school because I kept comparing myself to other people. But now, as I just received my doctorate degree, I realize that kind of thought is just a waste of time because every person’s unique. There’s no point in those comparisons. You don’t really gain anything. So these days I’ve been focusing more on thinking of the progress I made every day.