Liana Merck
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Microbiome

Where in the world is Liana?

Hello! Are you interested in how microbes differ across borders? Do you want to see how human behavior affects microbial diversity? Or maybe you’re looking for tips on researching abroad.

Follow me, Liana, a Watson fellow and recent graduate from The California Institute of Technology, as I journey across the globe exploring the wonderful world of microbial and human cultures.

Over the next eight months, I’ll be visiting farms and labs in eight different countries, collecting and sequencing microbes from yogurt and other fermented foods. Along the way, I’ll also be exploring local cultures and customs and sharing my experience of traveling and working abroad. My goal is to make exciting scientific discoveries and inspire you to do the same.

I will be posting regular updates below using #Lianasjourney.

And if you want to know how I got from brewing kombucha to getting a Watson Fellowship, read my full story.

Could you be my next host?
I'm always looking for new collaborations, so if you're interested in hosting me in your lab, just send me an email.
February 2022 – After a month in India, Liana arrives in Singapore, where she fulfills a childhood dream and puts her research back on track.

Following your yoga training in India, how did you decide where to go next?

Toward the end of my time in India, I was checking the travel advisory website every day. I was desperately hoping Finland would drop to a safe level, but it didn’t. I knew my visa for India would expire in a few days, so I was really under pressure. I eventually picked Singapore as my next destination, since it was at a safe travel level and I wouldn’t need to quarantine for two weeks. I also lived there for a few years as a child, and I’d always had this dream that one day I would visit or live there again. I didn’t think it would happen so soon.

How did you secure a lab placement in Singapore?

I contacted a friend from my undergrad university who studied in Singapore, and he put me in touch with Professor Fun Man Fung at the National University of Singapore. He contacted several labs on my behalf, but it was understandably difficult for them to agree to host me, especially over email and with COVID levels rising. When I reached Singapore, Professor Fung decided it would be better to visit the labs in person and talk to people directly. This made it easier to explain my project and convince them that I wouldn’t be a massive burden on time or resources. After a lot of discussions, I was given access to the teaching lab where I could do my DNA extractions. Everything started to look up from there.

How did you go about getting samples?

I contacted two kombucha breweries, and one of them was the owner of a Facebook group for home fermenters. I posted about my research and asked for samples. In two weeks, I had 50 samples from all over Singapore. Usually, it’s a range of people super interested in my research and how their ferment compares to international samples. Sometimes, however, people are only interested in getting their data, and they want it ASAP. Unfortunately, the sequencing and data analysis won’t happen for several months.  

It was inspiring to see how keen people are to incorporate fermented products into their diet, and how much respect they had for the ingredients. There was a lot of experience and knowledge in the community, and many people had even taken fermentation workshops. As a scientist, it’s exciting to think about all the science that’s going on inside people’s homes every day. 

Singapore, in particular, has a lot of research and development in the food space because they’re striving to be a self-sufficient island. Producing food locally, be it lab-grown meats, vertical farming or fermentation, is on the rise. And because Singapore includes so many cultures, there’s a fun blend of traditional Asian ingredients with Western fermentation methods, and vice versa.

Could you tell us what’s the tastiest and most unusual food you’ve tried so far?

I’ve tried so much great food, so it’s difficult to pick just one. There was a delicious goat milk cheese from La Laiterie Toulousaine in France - it just melted in the mouth. I also tried an amazing water kaffir, produced by a brewery in Singapore, that tasted just like soda. While I hated fresh durian, lacto-fermented durian was actually pretty pleasant and tasted like onion dip.

As your time in Singapore comes to an end, what do you have planned for March?

Fortunately, the Watson Fellowship recently changed the guidance, so I can travel to level four countries, and this opens up a lot more opportunities. I hope to make it to Japan in May, as I have a top-notch professor lined up there, with great connections to soy sauce, sake and miso production. Japan is still limiting the number of people entering the country, though, so I might have to adapt my plans again. At the moment, I’m thinking of either going to Thailand, with the hope that Japan might fully open its borders, or going to Ireland or South Africa and just accepting that I won’t make it to Japan. I have a contact at a top university in South Africa, and I think the research would be interesting there. There are a lot of cool indigenous fermented milk products in Africa that haven’t been studied. I have some more tough decisions to make, but I’m looking forward to whatever comes next.

January 2022 – India

Ahead of her next destination, Liana reflects on her time at a yoga school in India and how to navigate the highs and lows of traveling during a pandemic.

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