Each year, award partners make it possible for us to recognize and support the academic pursuits of nutrition graduate students through ASN Pre-doctoral Fellowships. These competitive fellowships require submission of an extensive research proposal and application.  The recipient of the 2019 Gerber Foundation Fellowship is Kalhara Menikdiwela from Texas Tech University. Kalhara’s research project is titled “MicroRNA Mediated Effects of Fish Oil Supplementation on Diet-induced Obese Mice During Pregnancy and in Offspring.” We are delighted that the Gerber Foundation can support Kalhara’s efforts.

ASN: How did you first get involved in nutrition science and research?

Kalhara Menikdiwela: Having completed my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Biotechnology, I obtained a substantial knowledge on the prevalence of non-communicable diseases and how these are becoming a threat to human health due to our lifestyle. Therefore, when I decided to pursue my PhD studies, naturally, I wanted to focus on an area of research which linked diseases such as obesity, type II diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Upon searching for potential advisors who researched on this same area, I came across Dr. Naima Moustaid-Moussa of the Nutrigenomics, Inflammation & Obesity Research  (NIOR) laboratory in the College of Human Sciences at Texas Tech University, and realized that she not only worked on this particular topic but also is a pioneer scientist in her area of research and her lab proactively worked to find practical solutions in reducing the prevalence of obesity, type II diabetes and related health concerns.

Tell us about your current position and the research activities in which you are involved.

At present, I’m a Ph.D. candidate in Nutritional Sciences and I have almost come to the end of my Ph.D. studies, and set to defend my dissertation and graduate this spring semester 2020. I worked on two research areas, both are related to understanding the role of nutrients and hormones on adipose tissue inflammation and related metabolic diseases. One of these projects is on the effects of fish oil on maternal and childhood obesity, and the second project focuses on the metabolic effects of an adipose tissue hormonal system, the renin angiotensin system (RAS), known to regulate blood pressure. Both of these projects have huge practical implications where, finding potential therapeutic targets for obesity using fat tissue as a model, would immensely benefit the communities suffering from maternal and childhood obesity and related diseases including heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Additionally, having worked as a graduate research assistant in the NIOR lab, has given me the exposure to other research carried out in our lab.

Is there any specific aspect of your research that you are personally passionate about?

While I enjoyed working on both of my research projects, one particular aspect which intrigued me the most is the microRNA field. This is relatively a novel area of science, especially only a handful of studies have been carried out with regards to its association with adipose tissue function and obesity. It’s fascinating how these small molecules of non-coding RNAs participate in regulating a large number of genes and metabolic pathways in cells in various and complex ways. There is a lot of crosstalk going on between these molecules and how they affect disease processes, which remain to be elucidated.

What aspects of ASN membership have you found most useful professionally?

I have immensely benefited from the ASN Student Membership, from being awarded travel scholarships, Predoctoral fellowships, to family travel funding when attending conferences. All these have truly helped me in building my graduate studies which ultimately sets the foundation to a good professional career. Being a member of the ASN itself is a key fact, attending the annual conference, Nutrition, provided me the invaluable opportunity to meet the pioneer scientists in my field of interest, as well as building a strong network within the ASN community that shares my research interests paves the way to find potential career opportunities related to my work. In this way, I would say that the recognition through fellowships and networking opportunities through ASN conferences have really helped me in building my professional career.  It is an honor to get to meet and learn from top experts in nutrition from around the globe. I also appreciate that the membership rate is affordable for students.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell ASN members, especially students?

ASN is definitely an association which promotes the field of nutrition and related areas. Therefore, anyone would undoubtedly reap many benefits by being an ASN member. I would highly encourage every nutrition student to be an active ASN member; especially graduate students like myself should participate in the annual conferences and apply for the fellowships and other scholarships the ASN offers and many resources on the web site that connect us with experts and professionals. It’s a society that identifies and recognizes quality research that is being carried out and provides the platform to showcase your work to the whole world. The society also balances very well the basic science with clinical and population-based nutrition research, in a multidisciplinary way that is very beneficial to students and all its members. Being in a basic science lab, attending ASN’s annual meeting has allowed me to learn about many other areas of nutrition. Therefore, ASN members should take advantage of this invaluable opportunity that is provided to them by this prestigious association, which would enhance the quality of your chosen scientific career.