From pioneer and leader in probiotics research to crime-writing novelist, Gregor Reid has certainly left an indelible mark on many fields during a career spanning more than 40 years.
Now, a new honour has been added to this impressive list. The Gregor Reid Award for Outstanding Scholars in Developing Nations – established by the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) – recognizes the founding board member and former president’s accomplishments, including passing on knowledge about probiotics and the human microbiome to low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) and the outreach achieved through Western Heads East (WHE).
We recently caught up with Reid, a distinguished professor emeritus at Western and scientist at Lawson Health Research Institute. He talked about his career, the ground-breaking research and the massive industry that emerged around probiotics, as well as the achievements of WHE and the activities of a certain investigative reporter named Barry Mackay.
What are some of the key moments in your career that you feel have made a difference?
I’ve always wanted to do research that made a difference to people and the planet. Hearing from patients everywhere, including those with HIV/AIDS, about the positive effects that probiotics have had on them has been a really amazing feeling.
The same is true of our efforts in Africa, where the WHE project that many of us were involved in has changed the lives of people quite significantly. Knowing your work has an impact like that is extremely gratifying.
Being the Chair of the WHO United Nations panel in 2001 that developed the definition of probiotics was also satisfying.
Achieving these honours is not just for my own satisfaction, but it’s also recognition for Canada, Western University and Lawson Health Research Institute.
What are some of the benefits of the WHE program for students?
Students deserve a lot of the credit for working with local African communities and making the program a success. The purpose was to provide students with real-life experiences in resource-constrained rural settings. By learning and giving of their talents, the internships really changed their lives.
WHE provides a broad range of experiences for students – business, medicine, marketing, and the social aspects of it. The program also changes how interns look at life and view their potential to impact others through food and the value chain established around probiotic yogurt. Very few, if any, universities have this sort of program.
Could you tell us about your involvement in HIV/AIDS research in these countries?
Through interactions with HIV/AIDS patients and caregivers, I came to see how malnutrition, poverty, violence against women, accessibility to care and lifestyle impacted HIV/AIDS acquisition and management. It felt like we needed to take care of the person as well as the society in which they lived, to prevent more suffering.
To that end, the probiotic yogurt can help alleviate diarrhea and fatigue, including symptoms associated with antiretroviral therapy (which blocks several stages of the HIV life cycle), and improve the immune response and patient stamina, as shown in studies I conducted in Africa.
We were told by women in community kitchens that they had HIV/AIDS patients who could not walk and needed help climbing a few stairs. Within weeks of taking the Fiti yogurt, a number of patients were not only able to come up the stairs but were also able to contribute to their families and communities.
When you have people, especially women, set up small, successful businesses, they gain respect in the community and make money that can help their children gain access to better education and health care. There is no doubt that WHE contributed in tangible ways for the HIV/AIDS community.
The ISAPP award has an international component to it. Why do you think that’s important to maintain?
The award encourages young researchers from LMICs in Africa and elsewhere to undertake research on this topic. This helps us better understand the challenges and opportunities faced by people in diverse parts of the world. It’s not just an award to send someone to a conference. It’s much more than that. I want the award to encourage young researchers to acquire the resources to propel their career.
I went from Scotland to New Zealand for my PhD studies, and it was front page news in the local newspaper in 1978. I saw the world as my oyster, and I felt there was something in other places that I could learn. Those three-and-half years changed my life. On the way back to Scotland in 1982, I experienced Africa for the first time, by retracing my father’s roots in South Africa and visiting Nairobi. It touched me in ways I can’t describe. The ISAPP Award provides a means to keep connections open and give students an experience they won’t forget, just like my travels have given me.
How are you keeping yourself busy in retirement?
I have a crime writing hobby. I write under the pseudonym of John G. Lesley. I thought if I put them under my own name, everyone would think the stories would be about probiotics. There are seven Barry Mackay novels altogether on Amazon.
I’m not totally out of science and still have a few papers to be published. I’ve also written a policy document for the Royal Society of Canada on how to incorporate microbes into planetary health and the ways Canada can contribute to that initiative.
I feel truly blessed with what life has given me, and the many amazing people I’ve met along the way. Seeing the next generation forge ahead augurs well for the future.