Ellen McGirt | The Design Observer Twenty

Suzanne Ishaq, PhD

A community forms to advance social equity at the microscopic level.

Suzanne Ishaq, PhD

The Design Observer Twenty | Sponsored by IDEO

The Design Observer Twenty is our curated selection of twenty remarkable people, projects, and big ideas solving an urgent social need.

It began as a student exercise, and unexpectedly became a global bat signal for biologists looking to combat inequity at the microscopic level.

In 2019, Suzanne Ishaq, PhD, was an assistant research professor at the University of Oregon in their Biology and the Built Environment Center. The work — an ongoing inquiry into the intersection of science and construction — typically involved designing for infection control or creating spaces that allowed a healthy biome to flourish. But Ishaq found that the humanities students in her introduction to microbial ecology class were as interested in social justice issues as they were in the science. “The rule of thumb is that we already know what’s good for a human,” she says. “A culturally relevant clean diet that’s free of toxins or pesticides. Air quality and water quality are huge. Safe and clean housing, obviously great, also involves microbial stuff.”

But what if there were few beneficial organisms in an environment? How does living in a food desert affect the microbiome? The chronic stress of racism? How should we be thinking about overcrowded communities and microbial health? Ishaq, who had been raising these issues informally with colleagues, was inspired. “These were awesome, really collaborative conversations.”

To finish her class, Ishaq and a colleague “shmooshed” all of the students’ final essays into one massive, 10,000-word document. Like the course, the essays explored new ideas about the role the biome could play in social justice. “Somehow, I’m not sure how, but the department published it.” Then, the essay went the microbiology research equivalent of viral. By then, Ishaq had moved to a new position at the University of Maine. “To my surprise, researchers started contacting me and asking what was next or saying that they’d been working on something similar.”

We are constantly leaving behind our microbes and picking up new ones on every surface — they are the mechanism that connects us all and connects us to the environment.
Dr. Suzanne Ishaq

What came next is The Microbes and Social Equity Working Group, a crowdsourced initiative from what is now called the Ishaq Lab. It’s a volunteer-based, global community of experts, 230 strong, and growing. Members from around the world are taking leadership roles withing the community as the collective proposes and shares research, advocates on social media, raises funds for events, and archives work on relevant topics. A popular speaker series emerged in 2021. A plan to collaborate on a special collection of papers followed soon after, one of which established some of the big questions researchers need to ask to better promote equitable exposure to beneficial microorganisms. (For the microbiome curious, those questions center on: (i) sociocultural interactions; (ii) Indigenous community health and well-being; (iii) humans, urban ecosystems, and environmental processes; (iv) human psychology and mental health; (v) microbiomes and infectious diseases; (vi) human health and food security; and (vii) microbiome-related planning, policy, and outreach.)

Ishaq is delighted that the group has organically connected academics who didn’t realize that others were thinking along the same lines. “I very much wanted this to be a ‘we’ operation, not a ‘me’ operation,” she says. She hopes that the conversations they stoke will encourage more meaningful interventions in the lives of marginalized or at-risk communities.

While microbes — or lack thereof — can function as signposts for health and justice, they’re also a reminder that we’re all connected.

“I think of the microbiome as all the microorganisms present and all the things they’re capable of. It’s really a community unto itself,” Ishaq says. “We are constantly leaving behind our microbes and picking up new ones on every surface — they are the mechanism that connects us all and connects us to the environment.”

Essay by Ellen McGirt.

Posted in: The Design Observer Twenty

Ellen McGirt Ellen McGirt is an author, podcaster, speaker, community builder, and award-winning business journalist. She is the editor-in-chief of Design Observer, a media company that has maintained the same clear vision for more than two decades: to expand the definition of design in service of a better world. Ellen established the inclusive leadership beat at Fortune in 2016 with raceAhead, an award-winning newsletter on race, culture, and business. The Fortune, Time, Money, and Fast Company alumna has published over twenty magazine cover stories throughout her twenty-year career, exploring the people and ideas changing business for good. Ask her about fly fishing if you get the chance.

Jobs | May 17