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Most parents haul their children to zoos so they can see or pet animals, but Jack Gilbert had a different goal in mind when he recently took his son Dylan to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. When one of the dolphins there pressed up against him, Dylan, then 8, stuck a swab in its mouth to obtain bacteria samples.
“He’s been doing microbiotic research for years,” Gilbert jokes. “He’s gone through the house wiping swabs of bacteria off various places. He’s not so worried about it anymore.”
Dylan is not alone. His father, the director of the Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago Medicine (and a professor in the department of surgery there), also spends a lot of time thinking about bacteria—and not in an antagonistic way. The author of one of this year’s best books for parents, Dirt Is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System (co-written with Rob Knight), Gilbert is dedicated not only to studying the microbiome—the millions of microorganisms in our bodies, which impact on our moods, immune system and much more—but to the idea that there is such a thing as “too clean.” This makes him kind of a weird dinner guest and effective critic of germaphobe culture.
“I’m trying to say, ‘I understand your concerns as a parent, but you could be doing your child way more harm and give them life-long health problems if you isolate them from the world,’” Gilbert, 40, says. “Bacteria transformed this world and made it hospitable. Without them, there wouldn’t be all the life we see.”
Exposure to germs, Gilbert and other scientists believe, can actually strengthen, not weaken, a child’s immune system. Bucking conventional parental wisdom, Gilbert—the father of Dylan, now 10, and Hayden, 7—claims, for instance, that pacifiers don’t have to be sterilized if they fall on the ground and advocates soap and water over hand sanitizers. He recently assured a young couple in his neighborhood that there was no harm in having one of his dogs lick their baby’s face. “People think all germs are bad and think, ‘I have to sterilize my home or else my child is going to have a nasty infection,’” Gilbert says. “I want to give people the actual evidence in ways they can digest.”
Gilbert’s interest in microbial ecosystems has everything to with his family. When he was kindergarten age, Dylan was diagnosed with autism. New studies suggest that some of the symptoms of autism could potentially be offset with a microbial transplant in children under the age of seven. “A viral infection during pregnancy is an extremely powerful indicator of whether or not your child has autism,” Gilbert explains. “Can we prevent some of these situations from occurring with the mothers during pregnancy? Some very promising results are coming out.”
Gilbert, who was born and raised in England and earned his Ph.D. from Nottingham University, feels Dylan has helped his scientific knowledge and his parental skills. “He’s made me a better person,” Gilbert says. “With other people, I’m constantly trying to be more generous with my time and patience. I want to understand them better, because I’m trying to do that with Dylan every day. It challenges you to think more deeply about other people.”
Adds Gilbert with a laugh, “My students and staff probably have a lot to thank Dylan for. I’m less of a grumpy old bugger because of him.”
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