Wellesley’s Tetel Lab Explores Links Between Hormones, the Microbiome, and Women’s Health

A professor works with two students in a lab
September 25, 2019

Can the bacteria in your gut explain your mood? Can bacteria from slim humans slim mice down? Could a gut bacteria supplement make us run faster? These titles of recent New York Times articles point to the importance of gut bacteria in a wide range of health outcomes. The short answer to these questions is yes. But how and why is mostly a mystery. And it’s not easy to tell whether changes found in bacteria are a cause or an effect.

Since scientists began to map the human microbiome—the trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other micro-organisms in and on our bodies—the gut microbiome has been linked to health issues such as obesity, diabetes, chronic skin and bowel disorders, and even anxiety and depression.

“It is becoming well-established that the gut microbiome has a profound effect on human health and disease,” said Marc Tetel, Dorothy and Charles Jenkins, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience at Wellesley. Long interested in how hormones influence the brain and behavior, Tetel has published numerous articles on the role of the ovarian steroid hormones estradiol and progesterone on gene expression and female reproductive behavior. His lab has now set its sights on the interplay between hormones and the gut microbiome. “Steroids can influence the gut microbiota, and in turn, the gut microbiota can influence hormone levels,” he said.

The Tetel Lab is currently working on three collaborative projects on women’s health that explore how estrogens regulate energy homeostasis, and interact with microbiota. (Read more about the team’s work here.) Wellesley students have made significant contributions to these projects: Since Tetel joined the neuroscience faculty in 2005, over 25 students have worked in his lab, and many have gone on to pursue graduate studies in the field.

Stephanie Song ’19 worked for three years on the Mayo Clinic microbiome project, which became her senior thesis, and is now a full-time researcher at the Mayo Clinic. Hired under the Graduate Research Employment Program, she intends to wrap up her microbiome research before pursuing an MD-PhD. “Working in the [Tetel] lab has given me a much clearer picture of how much research I want to incorporate into my career, the types of research problems that I find engaging, and my personal work style,” she said. 

Currently, the Tetel Lab employs two full-time staff members and several student researchers, including SERP (Sophomore Early Research Program) students Charlotte Emily Ryan ’21, Poli Gonzalez ’22, and Cesiah Gomez ’22 and Abigail Parakoyi ’21, who are also Posse scholars. Drawn to its research on women’s health, Parakoyi joined the Tetel Lab her first year. She intends to continue as a junior and to pursue a doctorate in neuroendocrinology. “One of the things I most appreciate about working in the lab is that I have the ability to make mistakes in a controlled, supportive environment,” she said. “I also enjoy being surrounded by other students who bring different perspectives and ideas to meetings in order to improve the various experiments going on in the lab.”

“My favorite part of working with Wellesley students is watching how much they grow and develop as scholars,” said Tetel. “I’ve seen profound transformations in intellectual depth and self-assurance, especially in the cases of students who work in the lab for all four years at Wellesley.”

Photo: Marc Tetel, Madeline Graham (Tetel's research assistant), and Abigail Parakoyi ’21 work in Tetel’s newly renovated L-wing lab.