The American Society for Nutrition (ASN) is happy to announce an ongoing series of member spotlights; an opportunity to shine a light on the work of our terrific members! ASN’s mission is to advance the science, education, and practice of nutrition with a vision of a healthier world through evidence-based nutrition. The nutrition community is made up of individuals with diverse experiences, perspectives, and ideas. This diversity is the fundamental strength of our professional society and we hope this member spotlight series can only begin to celebrate the vast achievements made by our members in the field.
For our first member spotlight and in honor of Black History Month, we share our interview with Dr. Liz Johnson, Assistant Professor of Molecular Nutrition at Cornell University in the Division of Nutritional Sciences. Read the full interview below sharing her experience in the field, her work with lipids in health and disease, and her hopes for the next generation of Black scientists.
We often discuss the contributions African Americans make to popular culture, but the contributions made to science are not necessarily given the same level of attention. Is there an African American scholar you’ve admired, who has given you inspiration in your professional career?
My husband Dr. Jamol Pender who is a Professor in the College of Engineering at Cornell University. We study completely different topics but I learn something new from his intellect, drive, and commitment to education every day. He gives great advice and on the practical side, he supports my career by being great at wrangling our sons through bathtime, bedtime, and their morning routines.
Is there a special person or mentor in your life who gave you the encouragement you needed to achieve your academic and professional success as a Black female scientist?
Dr. Alison Gammie and Dr. Ruth Ley. Having inspiring role models that believed in me and advocated for me has been foundational to my career. I hope to be that type of mentor for aspiring scientists.
Can you tell us more about your current position and the research projects in your lab at Cornell University?
I am an Assistant Professor of Molecular Nutrition in the Division of Nutritional Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. My lab largely focuses on understanding how nutrients in infant diets affect the development of the gut microbiome and how in turn the metabolic output of the gut microbiome influences metabolic health in humans.
How did you first get involved in the science of lipids in health and disease? What aspects of your research do you foresee being most important?
I first got involved in the science of lipids in health and disease upon joining the research group of Ruth Ley for my postdoctoral studies. We wanted to extend research linking gut microbiome composition to obesity by understanding whether gut microbes were contributing specialized lipids to their hosts. My background was in genomics so Ruth sent me to the lab of Dr. Tilla Worgall in the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University to gain skills pertaining to lipid biochemistry. Tilla is another mentor I was fortunate to have worked with during my years as a trainee. Those days were full of excitement! Everything coming of the mass spec was new knowledge and my labmates were so engaging. We would talk for hours about challenges and solutions to understanding bacterial lipids in the context of mammalian biology.
When I started to think about my own research program, I realized the class of lipids I was studying was most prominent in human milk and could have great implications for the infant microbiome. So when I started my own research group, I focused on trying to understand how lipids in human milk were affecting the microbiome. Now, my lab has developed a set of tools to understand lipid transfer in animal models and we apply these insights to our human subjects work with babies and their caregivers. I think that our method development and what we learn about the importance of lipids in infant diets to microbiome development will be some of our most important contributions to the field. My lab group is made up of extremely talented scientists and I hope that my one of my major contributions to the field is the support of their success.
What are your hopes for the future of Black scientists and what words of encouragement do you have to offer the new generation of scientists from minority groups?
My hopes are that Black scientists feel welcome, celebrated, and supported in their research efforts and career aspirations. I think this is achieved by mentors and advocates working to truly address the tough challenges faced by Black scientists in the field even if it makes people uncomfortable. My words of encouragement are to put a lot of thought into what you want to do and pursue that even if it seems like a crazy dream. You can accomplish anything. Finding great mentors can help you keep those goals in sight through the good and bad times.
How can ASN as an organization and individual members help current and future Black scientists in the field of nutrition?
Things like this blog post are great in creating visibility for Black scientists and hopefully getting it out there that we exist and look forward to interacting with trainees. ASN has some good programing for minority scientists and I would love to see expanded monetary resources to support trainee research experiences and research collaborations.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell ASN members, especially minority students and postdocs?
The Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University is an amazing place to explore topics in Nutrition. We have expertise ranging from defining molecular pathways to community-based nutrition interventions with concentrations in molecular, human, community and international nutrition. I hope that when the time is right, you’ll visit us in Ithaca, NY. The summers are beautiful and the winters are beautiful but cold. I also want to mention my Alma Mater – Spelman College – which was a great place to build a foundation to support my current research and career aspirations.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is a critical component of ASN’s Mission. For those who are interested in supporting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts, through volunteering, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. As we continue our work, we will be enlisting the support of member volunteers for targeted projects.
For those interested in supporting DEI efforts through giving, you can donate towards Minority Investigators and Students Donations, which help support the development and execution of programs for minority investigators and students including the annual “Young Minority Oral Investigator Competition” held at ASN’s annual conference.
For information and updates on ongoing DEI initiatives and activities, please visit https://nutrition.org/our-members/minority-affairs/.
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