Sarah Reyes, Ph.D. Candidate in Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University and NIH Predoctoral Trainee in Translational Research in Nutrition

Sarah Reyes received her B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies – International Studies and Human Nutrition and her M.S. in Animal Science from the University of Idaho and is completing her Ph.D. studies in the Human Nutrition Program at Cornell University’s Division of Nutritional Sciences. Sarah is an NIH predoctoral trainee on a translational research in nutrition training grant of which, until recently, former ASN president Patrick Stover was the PI. Sarah has been an ASN member since 2009 and holds the position of Secretary for the International Society for Research in Human Milk and Lactation’s Trainee Interest Group, an ASN partner organization.

1. How did you first get involved in nutrition science and research?

I come from Idaho, a rural state with high rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. I originally wanted to become a physician because access to quality medical care in Idaho is relatively limited for poor and rural populations. I chose to study International Studies and Human Nutrition to give me breadth of knowledge that I thought would position me competitively for acceptance into medical school. However, the more I learned about the cycles of poverty and oppression in my International Studies courses and the power of nutrition and exercise to prevent and even treat chronic disease, I realized quickly that my passion was to empower people like me—the daughter of a mixed-race couple from a blue-collar family in poor, rural America—to prevent chronic disease. I became passionate about public health and how to disrupt the systems in place that sustain cycles of poverty and oppression. I recognized that my overlapping interests in basic science and public health could be a powerful tool to create evidence-based recommendations to empower disadvantaged and marginalized members of our society achieve better health outcomes. (At the time I wasn’t aware of the term translational research, but ultimately that’s what I pursued). My interest in nutrition, specifically, was inspired by my undergraduate courses which taught me that my grandmother’s type II diabetes and neuropathy were consequence of years of subsisting on a diet nearly void of fresh fruits and vegetables and eating too much white bread, white sugar, and white potatoes (I mean it was rural Idaho—yes, the stereotype applies).

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

I’m a PhD candidate in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University. Kathleen Rasmussen, ScD, RD is the Chair of my doctoral committee, and I collaborate with the laboratories of Anthony Hay, PhD, at Cornell University, Mark McGuire, PhD, at the University of Idaho, and Shelley McGuire, PhD at Washington State University. In the spirit of translational research, I was intent on using basic science to advance a public health initiative for my doctoral research. I was able to leverage my Chair’s interest in women’s real-life experiences with pumping and feeding expressed breast milk with the combined expertise in microbiology and lactation physiology of my collaborators. I was particularly interested in the discordance between the way expressed milk was collected in studies cited in current recommendations for handling and storage of expressed milk at home and the way expressed milk is collected in real-life. Specifically, most studies collect milk aseptically whereas real-life is messy. Women often have to pump their milk in less than ideal conditions such as in restrooms, vehicles, and other public spaces. Plus, expressed milk is often stored at multiple temperatures and poured into several different containers. My doctoral research has focused on characterizing and comparing the human milk microbiome in real-life conditions v. aseptic collection and identifying sources of and factors associated with bacterial contamination in expressed milk. We conducted a randomized trial to do this research and I’m just finishing up the analyses of this work. Our results not only fill a critical gap needed to improve existing recommendations for handling and storage of expressed milk at home, but it also opens up questions about how differential exposure to microbes from breast milk influence the infant gastrointestinal microbiome and health outcomes. I’m excited to share some of our results for the first time at Nutrition 2018!

3. You are a student at a prestigious university, a mother of two, and pregnant?! How do you do it?

I get that question a lot! In fact, I made a YouTube video of a day in my life to give others a glimpse of how I make it work. First, I have a fully supportive and loving husband, Paul Reyes. His commitment to helping me achieve this goal is undoubtedly a huge reason why I have been able to pull off school and kids simultaneously. My hat goes off to all the single, working moms out there. I don’t know how they do it! Second, having kids has pushed me to become more intentional about my goals, to prioritize my daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly tasks needed to accomplish those goals, and to manage my time so I can maintain the energy and enthusiasm needed to be productive over extended periods of time while still being present at home.

4. What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing nutrition researchers today? 

My biggest concern for nutrition researchers is public trust. Without trust, individuals will not heed recommendations. Especially where I’m from, many are leery of dietary recommendations because some have changed drastically over time (think cholesterol and eggs). Drastic changes in recommendations are perceived as “scientists don’t know what they’re doing.” Plus, policies enacted to ensure healthy eating is equitable (e.g., trans-fat bans, soda size restrictions in NYC, school lunch policies limiting access to sugary and salty foods) are seen as attacks on individual rights and freedoms, which fuels distrust in recommendations. I think a combination of the use of rigorous study methods to produce quality science along with nutrition scientists being more vocal on social and other media platforms can help improve public trust.

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

Know what your objectives are and be intentional on dedicating time to those. Expose yourself to as many learning opportunities as you can to gain breadth of knowledge and experience. For example, take a short-course on equity either online, at your university, or at another university. Become involved in things that matter to you both professionally and personally! This will keep you enthusiastic and motivated about your research and help you live a healthier life. Stay open-minded and remain objective in your pursuit of science. Finally, find a good mentor and a good advocate. A good mentor will help you learn how to conduct rigorous science and sharpen the skills you need to meet your own personal objectives. An advocate is someone who is respected in your field that can help you find and avail on opportunities that will help you achieve your goals.

[Learn more about ASN student membership here]

Sarah Reyes’ primary interests are the developmental origins of health and disease and finding equitable solutions to empower disadvantaged and marginalized populations achieve better health outcomes. Sarah’s interests are focused on the mother-infant dyad and, in particular, the breastfeeding relationship. Most recently, Sarah’s work has focused on characterizing the bacterial communities in breast milk pumped in real-life conditions. Sarah has conducted research in mammalian and bacterial cell culture, biochemical analyses, epidemiology, and microbiome research. In addition to her research interests, Sarah is interested in opportunities to use her knowledge to serve others. She recently attended the Make the Breast Pump Not Suck Hackathon where she helped design a study to evaluate the efficacy of hand expression on milk volume for incarcerated women in New Mexico. Visit her video, A Day in the Life of a PhD Mom | Ivy League, Kids, and Pregnancy.

Interview with Kevin Klatt, Ph.D. Candidate in Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University and member of the Executive Board of the ASN Student Interest Group (SIG).

Kevin Klatt received his B.S. in Biological Anthropology from Temple University with a Minor in Public Health, his M.S. in Human Nutrition at Drexel University, and is completing his Ph.D. studies in the Molecular Nutrition Program at Cornell University’s Division of Nutritional Sciences. Kevin has been an ASN member since 2013, actively involved with the Student Interest Group (SIG) since 2015, most recently as Social Media Specialist, and has contributed to ASN strategic planning initiatives, including the Vision 2028 Summit.

  1. How did you first get involved in nutrition science and research? What made you interested in the field of nutrition and dietetics?

 

It took me a while to come to the field of nutrition science (or nutritional science? I think we need a session to find consensus on this question at Nutrition2018). I was first exposed to nutrition through my own efforts losing 85 lbs. in high school. The internet was full of varied information on nutrition and it piqued my curiosity that such vastly differing perspectives could be presented so confidently as factual. I originally went to college as an international business major with concentrations in Italian and Chinese, but quickly switched. Unfortunately, my undergraduate didn’t offer nutrition as a major, so I chose to major in biological anthropology to cover all the broad prerequisites needed to pursue nutrition. Originally, I intended follow a dietetics-only track and do more clinical nutrition—I remember being near-offended when the director of our Honors Program told me that she knew one day I’d find research and love it—She was right! After years of absorbing every possible perspective about nutrition, I realized that while still following dietetics, I would ultimately pursue research and enjoy asking questions and coming up with different ways to respond to those questions.

 

  1. What influenced your decision to join ASN? What convinced you to become involved in ASN?

 

While taking my dietetics coursework, I heard about the Advances and Controversies in Clinical Nutrition Conference and thought it’d be fun to attend. It cost less to attend for student members, so I applied and joined ASN. I’ve retained my membership and have become more active because the society is a great place to network with other nutrition science focused communities. From a student/ young investigator perspective, I think it’s important to see how associations work from the inside and understand the social and political factors that impact science. Getting more involved with professional societies like ASN have been enormously informative about such factors.

 

  1. What aspects of ASN membership have you found most useful, professionally? What other aspects of your membership do you find useful as your career has progressed?

 

I used to blog for ASN and found it a great opportunity to generate conversation in the social media space and to hone my writing skills. Science communication is a really interesting discipline and is desperately needed in the era in which the top five Google search results about nutrition questions tell you five different answers from dubious or motivated sources. The conferences (aside from the student discounts) keep me coming back to ASN—these are great for putting faces to the scientists whose work you’re reading and network with them. The conferences are also a great exposure to aspects of nutrition science outside of your typical purview and provide a novel perspective on your own research or inspiration to address a new topic.

 

  1. What aspects of your research do you foresee being most important for ASN members?

 

My research has several apparent and transparent reminders for ASN members. For students, those mandatory seminar classes may actually be useful! A large part of my dissertation work came about because I attended a seminar, half paid attention, and re-stumbled onto the paper again later and was ultimately inspired to start some work that is now half of my dissertation. This led me to explore the impact of nutrition on a nuclear receptor that no one in nutrition really talks about, using cell and animal model systems and in a human trial. For researchers broadly, I hope my dissertation work (when published/presented at Nutrition2018) reminds people to be intellectual vagabonds, and that nutrients are involved in every biological system being studied by all biological sciences. Whereas much of biology tries to minimize the variability instituted by the nutrition source for their model, nutrition scientists have so many opportunities looking at broad biological findings and viewing this in the context of a manipulatable nutrient-defined milieu—just ask your cell signaling biologist the fatty acid composition of their fetal bovine serum! Also, phospholipids do a lot more than just sit in membranes.

 

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

 

I’m a PhD candidate in the Molecular Nutrition Program at the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University. Most of my time is spent in the laboratories of both Mark S. Roberson, PhD, and Marie A. Caudill, PhD, RD, where I’ve had the opportunity to work in several projects spanning the reproductive biology to nutrient metabolism spectrum. My dissertation focuses on the impact of diet and reproductive life stage on fatty acid, phospholipid and one carbon metabolism. We are particularly interested in the interactions between the fatty acids, DHA and lauric acid, dietary methyl donors such as choline, and their relevant phospholipid metabolites. Phosphatidylcholine/lysophosphatidylcholine pools of DHA have received much attention in recent years as critical physiological pools of DHA for extrahepatic tissue supply. A unique phosphatidylcholine, dilauroylphosphatidylcholine (DLPC) was recently identified as a ligand for the orphaned nuclear receptor, liver receptor homolog-1 (LRH-1). DLPC is nearly absent from physiological systems and is not indexed in metabolomics databases. I’ve been exploring the impact of dietary lauric acid on the production of DLPC using cell culture, animal feeding, and human controlled feeding experiments, and plan to publish this research soon. Recently, I also started a randomized controlled trial of choline supplementation throughout the second and third trimester of pregnancy to examine its impact on omega-3 fatty acid metabolism and infant cognition.

 

  1. What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing nutrition researchers today? Are there any areas where you would like to see more research?

 

My three biggest concerns for nutrition researchers are inconsistent funding, methods and public trust. Boom and bust cycles in funding, often tied up in politics leave me worried for the longevity of a career in research. This is a particular concern coming from the viewpoint of someone who doesn’t necessarily want to write grants with grandiose handwaving about solving obesity and related metabolic conditions. I worry about nutrition-related issues that won’t receive the attention or funding needed as the focus shifts toward the prevention and treatment of obesity. As other fields in medicine have moved towards rigorous, double-blind, randomized controlled trials assessing meaningful disease endpoints, it’s a huge challenge for the field to generate data that substantially minimizes uncertainty. Challenges include improving dietary assessment, identifying validated, causal surrogate outcomes, and using preclinical models relevant to human physiology and disease. Unfortunately, this uncertainty may benefit vested entities to generate a buzz in the media and foster public distrust. Thus, a big challenge facing nutrition researchers is the ability to communicate of our research in an interesting manner that conveys its implications and uncertainties equally. This is increasingly difficult in the current media environment where nutrition fuels clickbait headlines, and many actors in this environment seek social capital.

 

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

 

Dilute your own biases as much as humanly possible. Pre-register all of your studies, collaborate with and befriend investigators with whom you disagree, consciously uncouple from conclusions to which you find yourself married to beyond the evidence, lead with the limitations of your approach, and stay humble knowing that no matter how much you seek the truth, Netflix documentaries will almost certainly have a bigger impact on the public’s eating habits than your research findings.

Kevin Klatt’s primary research interests are in the field of molecular nutrition, focusing on the impact of dietary factors on relevant phosphatidylcholine signaling and transport molecules. His work utilizes cultured cells as well as animal and human feeding experiments to investigate the impact of dietary choline and fatty acids on phosphatidylcholine synthesis and metabolism. Other interests include the role of metabolism in the development and maturation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis and genetic and environmental factors that regulate placental development and function. a. Kevin enjoys reading about the relevance of nutrition to agriculture, sustainability and social justice, and is passionate about scientific education, especially as it pertains to nutritional sciences. He is a blogger at nutrevolve.blogspot.com, for ASN (nutrition.org/asn-blog), and for the RD site the-sage.org.

 

Doctor David B. Allison is the current dean, distinguished professor, and provost professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington. Prior to Indiana University, Allison was a distinguished professor, Quetelet Endowed Professor, and director of the NIH-funded Nutrition Obesity Research Center (NORC) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Allison was appointed director of the NORC in 2003 and served until 2017. Allison has published more than 500 scientific papers with research interests including obesity and nutrition, quantitative genetics, clinical trials, statistical and research methodology, and research rigor and integrity.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), NORCs are “intended to integrate, coordinate, and foster interdisciplinary basic, clinical, translational, and public health research by a group of established investigators actively conducting programs of important, high-quality research that is related to research specific to NIDDK’s mission.”

There are currently twelve university-based NORCs across the United States from New York to Washington State. These centers are funded by P30 Center Core Grants from the NIDDK to bring together investigators who are conducting research in nutrition and obesity and improve the quality of research by promoting multidisciplinary work and sharing access to specialized technical resources and expertise. These centers allow for cost-effective collaboration between groups of investigators at the same institution. The NORC at UAB currently has 159 investigators from 58 different academic units – a manifestation of the center’s multidisciplinary approach.

Allison’s 14-year appointment as director of UAB’s NORC makes him an ideal individual to speak with about the successes of the initiative since its inception in 1999. Allison was gracious enough to answer several questions about his tenure as director and about NORCs more broadly.

What role do you see NORCs playing on university campuses?

NORCs are enormously helpful, and it is valuable to consider them in a historical context. The first NORC – before they were even called NORCs – was the New York Obesity Research Center at Columbia University and, at the time, Rockefeller University. It was the first and for many years only federally funded obesity research center in the United States. The NIDDK subsequently decided to call all the clinical nutrition research units and obesity nutrition research centers “NORCs,” and there are now twelve under this designation.

The New York center is where I started my career as an obesity researcher during my second postdoc. It was a lot of fun there. The NY Obesity Research Center was the mecca of obesity research. If you were an obesity researcher, and if you wanted to get trained, you knew where the mecca was. If you wanted to make a pilgrimage, you could see what the great leaders of the field were doing. You could go there and meet esteemed individuals such as Ted VanItallie, Xavier Pi-Sunyer, and Steven Heymsfield.

You sort of knew where the leadership was – where the intelligentsia and cognoscenti were. There were certainly other places in the world that were powerhouses in obesity, but in the United States, the NY Obesity Research Center served as a galvanizing force. It also served as a great training ground at the time – and NORCs still do. It is one of the things that makes NORCs special: they are multidisciplinary, and they are focused on a topic.

What you sometimes see in the field of obesity, which is probably true in other fields as well, is that there are a lot of instances of people making mistakes that I refer to as “errors in interdisciplinarity.” This is an error which one makes because one is completely unaware of something that would be basic and fundamental to someone in another discipline – but you as a member of a different discipline aren’t aware of it.

A simple example would be if you are a social scientist and you know that physical activity matters for obesity, and you make an assessment that some program will have an important effect, but you don’t know anything about body mass or energetics. You then project the amount of weight change that could occur because of the physical activity intervention without understanding the physics, the mechanics, or the energetics. This is an error of interdisciplinarity.  We see these things regularly.

When I was “growing up” in the NY Obesity Research Center, these kinds of things would become the fodder of your education as a young person. So if you piped up and raised your hand in a seminar and said, “What about this?” it may reveal that you didn’t understand a basic concept in statistics, psychology, physiology, or anatomy. Then the more senior people around, who were experts in those things, would say to you, “Come on over here, kid, let’s explain to you that’s not how that works.” You got it drilled into your head, an emphasis of interdisciplinarity – the idea of real expertise – and avoiding these simplistic mistakes that you still see so often now in people who are focused on obesity research. That is one very valuable part of it: bringing together an interdisciplinary cadre of experts on the topic who then educate young people to be an expert in a topic, and not just get caught up in their own discipline.

The second thing that is extremely valuable is the idea of the NORC as provocateurs of people’s interests. The total amount of money in the NORCs per se is not much – around $750k/year in direct costs – not much bigger than one or two R01s. What is important is not the total cash value, but the way the value is delivered through a leader on campus, who then uses the funds as a lever, at the right points to provoke activity, and provoke interests.

Years ago, early in the NORC’s history at UAB, it became clear to me that using more invertebrate models for obesity was important, that genomics was upon us, and that we should have people working with Drosophila and C. elegans. I was able to use different pieces of the NORC to provoke that. For example, I would bring in speakers through our seminar series who worked on those topics. We had funding for pilot grants that could be used on that research. There were extra discretionary funds from institutional matching, so I could use those funds to recruit some younger people to work on these topics. All those things came together so that people were writing and getting R01s to do research involving those organisms.

There are other things that are important for the NORC in terms of sense of identity.  People are excited to be at an NORC because they feel that they are at one of “the” places. The dollar amount of the NORC isn’t that great, but the prestige value is high. It serves to create an identity to get people excited – to pull them together to work together on things. Those are some of the big values of the NORCs today.

You were director of the NORC at the University of Alabama at Birmingham for nearly 15 years. How have you seen the effect of NORCs change over that time?

I think we have seen a couple of changes. In general, science has changed, and the NORC science has changed with it. Science has become more molecular, more genetic, and the NORCs keep up with the trends of general science. Other things I have seen in NORCs is this idea of leveraging the amount of money. Not only is the amount of money provided by the direct costs of the NORC not large, especially compared to diabetes centers, cancer centers, and other NIH centers that receive much more than NORCs, but it’s been flatlined for over 20 years. If you compared the NORC funds in real dollars to the dollars from 20 years ago, the current funds are much smaller.

NORCs have become these engines – at their best – where creative leaders use the P30 grants as the nucleating site around which to build other stuff. You go to your institution and get a match in funds, and then you get some T32 grants. You say, “Isn’t this great we have an NORC, so we can do great training. Please give us a postdoctoral and predoctoral T32 in obesity, and then why don’t you give us an R5 to do a national short course in obesity?” … You keep adding those things on. We at UAB were very strong on that. Many other institutions are as well, and that is one way you have seen the NORCs change. They have become these multi-infrastructure grant organizations.

When speaking with other NORC directors and center administrators, what are some of the advances and successes that have stood out to you?

I think probably more than anything, the successes and advances that I hear the NORC directors take the greatest pride in is the young people who they help get started, and that is especially true for those NORCs that go on to get T32s, which many have. How I got my own start was on a T32 while in New York. That is also how I learned to write T32s, by being thrown into it by my old boss at the NORC. He said, “Here’s my old folder. I’m going on a trip out of the country. I will be back after this thing is due. Good luck,” and I said “…okay,” and so I learned how to write a T32 grant.

I think when people are successful in getting those T32 grants, as well as in getting young people involved, however they do it, bringing new people into the field, and helping those new people achieve, it is a great success. You can look at many of us and say that we are products of the NORC systems themselves. Myself, Doctors Dympna Gallagher, Tim Nagy, Barbara Gower, Michael Goran, and many others, are all the products of these centers, brought in as postdocs at the beginning of a center. Many who are NORC directors now got their start there.

How do NORCs help cultivate the future generation of nutrition and obesity researchers?

To reiterate, the interdisciplinarity: training people so they are not just a public health person that says, “Yeah I get it, people, they eat too much and exercise too little, what else do I need to know about obesity. Now I just need to talk about the policies that will make people eat less and exercise more.” Well, maybe it would be good to know a little more than that. NORCs bring up people with a more robust knowledge of this. The NORCs also draw people into the field, give them a sense of identity and belonging and an enthusiasm for being in the field.

You have been critical of the rigor at which obesity and nutrition research is performed. Do you think that NORCs have been able to increase the quality of research in the field?

I think that NORCs do increase the quality of research in the field, and they lead by example. I am critical of the rigor and quality of the research everywhere, including in my own research. That is important for us to do as scientists – to be critical of the rigor and the quality of research – and to make it better. I think there are particular concerns raised in the field of obesity, and some of those concerns in my mind came out in the mid-90s when obesity began to be seen as a public health crisis.

Instead of obesity research being driven to a greater extent by people who were fully involved in it for a long time, and involved with others in getting this interdisciplinary background, it became more that anybody felt that they can jump in. Any economist, any public health official, jumped in with zealous passion, which much of the time wasn’t matched with rigorous background knowledge. This has led to some of the more questionable research we have seen. It’s not everything, but just one factor. NORCs are helping by providing training for people, by putting out good research, and by leading by example.

What are some fond memories from your time at UABs NORC

Well, pulling together on things in general. Part of what makes a great center great is people working together as a center. In fact, one of the things that attracted me to come down to UAB was in fact its centeredness. I had other offers before heading to UAB, and some were at institutions that were more attractive in some ways, but what I liked about UAB and the NORC was the feeling that this was a group of people that worked together, and only a slight exaggeration, but it was a sense of a family. I really liked that. To me, a lot of my fondest memories were pulling together with Tim Nagy, Barbara Gower, José Fernández, Tim Garvey, the late Roland Weinsier, Stephen Barnes, Steve Austad, Kevin Fontaine, Julie Locher, Gary Hunter, and I am sure I’ve missed many important people, but the ability to pull together through tough challenges, working hard, overcoming obstacles – doing things together which none of us could have done alone.

 

This is part two of a two-part interview with Dr. David Allison.

Doctor David B. Allison is the current dean, distinguished professor, and provost professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington. Prior to Indiana University, Allison was a distinguished professor, Quetelet Endowed Professor, and director of the NIH-funded Nutrition Obesity Research Center (NORC) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Allison was appointed director of the NORC in 2003 and served until 2017. Allison has published more than 500 scientific papers with research interests including obesity and nutrition, quantitative genetics, clinical trials, statistical and research methodology, and research rigor and integrity.

In addition to his primary appointments, Allison is a co-director for two NIH-funded “Short Courses” on obesity research held in Birmingham, Ala., during the summer. Dr. Allison’s “Short Course on Mathematical Sciences in Obesity Research” is going on its fifth consecutive year, while the “Short Course on Strengthening Causal Inference in Behavioral Obesity Research” is coming up on its fourth consecutive year. These interdisciplinary courses convene a cadre of expert faculty members who teach on various aspects of obesity research, covering economics, epidemiology, statistics, genetics, and much more. These courses are oriented toward investigators who want to increase the rigor in their approach to obesity research, and they bridge various disciplines in which obesity research is performed. Allison took the time to answer a few questions regarding the ability to better approach obesity and nutrition research.

You have noted that the rigor of obesity research has been lacking. Has there been a shift in recent years?

I don’t have unequivocal data as to whether there has been a shift in recent years in obesity research or research overall. I have a hypothesis though, which is when you look within any one journal, research is getting ever more rigorous, whereas when you look across all journals, it may be getting less rigorous because of the influx of new journals.

If you take a journal like the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, they keep getting more rigorous. That is in part because the editor-in-chief, Dr. Dennis Bier, has a very strong commitment to that, and he has built an associate editorial board who shares the commitment. Meanwhile, other journals keep springing up that are not as rigorous. So for the overall quality of the literature, I am not sure if it is going up or down, since you have these competing factors.

One of the things my colleagues and I are writing a paper on now is the childhood obesity intervention literature, which seems to be particularly susceptible to distortion. We hypothesize that this has to do with feelings of zealousness – the idea that childhood obesity is such a problem and it must be addressed. To come out after an expensive and effortful intervention and say, “Guess what, I did an intervention and it just didn’t work, so let’s move on.” People just don’t want to say that. They want to instead say, “But it must work, we can’t tell people not to do this, especially if we don’t have something better, so let’s twist and bend and ‘find a pony in there’.” We see a lot of “spin” in these things, and that is an area where things seem to have become worse.

What are your suggestions to researchers in the field to increase conscientiousness in limiting and being transparent about shortcomings in the quality of the research produced?

I think there are different aspects to it. Some aspects to it, and perhaps related to what I was saying about the childhood obesity literature, is that people, often again with good intentions, are bending the truth. I think that we need to continually remind ourselves that we are scientists and reflect on why we all got into science in the first place. To be a scientist means to pursue truth through the scientific method. We have to affirm that speaking the unvarnished truth is an uncompromisable imperative. Commitment to one’s identity as a scientist is something to be held dear.

Then, I think there are some things that are more skill-level. Many errors I see – and partially because this is my expertise, so I see what I understand and know about – are statistical errors. One of the challenges is that the norm for many years was, and still is, that many scientists should be able to conduct their own statistical analyses. Physicians are generally not trained with this mentality, because they get very little training in statistics. They accept that they will need to go to a statistician – most at least. Whereas if you are trained in a field like nutrition, psychology, physiology, or biology, you get a PhD in that, and you get one or two statistics courses as you earn your PhD, often taught by that same department. The person who teaches that course tends to not be a professional statistician, but rather a physiologist, biologist, or nutritionist who knows a little statistics. What you are getting is kind of an intelligent amateur who is running the statistics for professional research.

If you think about that – it’s the equivalent of me saying that I need to get a kidney surgery and I say, “Well, I have an anatomy book. I know approximately where my kidneys are. I have a bottle of hand sanitizer. I can get some rubber gloves and a pocket knife, and I can do it myself.” Well, no. Just because you have an anatomy book and you know where the kidneys are and you understand the idea of surgery doesn’t mean you are a professional surgeon, and we wouldn’t have you do it. Why take a different view about statistics? Part of what we are currently exploring, since statisticians are in limited supply, is how we can get more professional statisticians to be involved with more papers, and how can we create a culture and an economic situation that would permit that.

Is there an overreliance on observational research in nutrition/obesity studies? If so, why is this the case?

I think there is sometimes a reliance on observational studies for situations in which they are not what I would call “probative.” For example, you can think, “Well, maybe Pokémon GO is going to reduce obesity levels.” No-one has ever looked at it, so sure, go ahead and do an observational study. Do people who start using Pokémon GO lose weight or gain less weight? And that is fine, there is nothing wrong with that. You might even want to replicate it once or twice. But if you say, “Well, now we’ve done that, so let’s do 20 more of those,” then you need to wonder why you need the next 20. Maybe you need one more to confirm it, but not 20 more. What you see is people not shifting out of the observational and into the experimental when it is called for. For example, breakfast consumption, fruit and vegetable consumption, things like that – when people continue to grind on the observational literature long after it is really useful.

You have noted that you see many errors in obesity and nutrition related meta-analyses. How would you caution investigators in interpreting these papers?

I would say, interpret with a grain of salt, particularly if there isn’t a professional statistician on there. The issue is that there is software out there, where it is seemingly easy. You plug in a few numbers, and it spits out a meta-analysis for you. The problem is, you need to know what numbers to plug in. That is where the problem, the challenge, and the mistakes often occur. Particularly, these mistakes seem to occur around variances. I would caution anybody who is going to do a meta-analysis who thinks, “Oh, meta-analyses are easy. I can just get a grad student to grab some papers, write the numbers down, and plug them in some public software.” I would caution people not to do that, but to have a professional statistician involved.

You have published articles criticizing the statistics and assumptions of various academic papers, resulting in their retractions. Can you theorize why these papers are being published in the first place? What are some mistakes that you see most often?

Why they get published in part is because we don’t really have a good system for vetting papers. Many people seem to think that peer review is that system, but I don’t think it was ever realistic to expect that peer review can be the true gatekeeper of papers and can eliminate all mistakes – or even most mistakes. I think peer review just checks if a paper belongs, and then you receive advice. But the peer reviewers don’t have the time and the ability to go through everything the author and investigator did to see if it is correct. That must fall on the investigators themselves. I think many investigators let a lot slip through – some intentional and some unintentional. I think we need to work on both of those things.

What would you recommend to young researchers in the field of obesity and nutrition who would like to improve their ability to identify poor methods and conclusions?

I would say to take our short courses. Read very widely, including interdisciplinary work. Read some work on the physiology of obesity, the genetics of obesity, engineering approaches, computational approaches, nutritional, psychology, medical, and economic approaches, so that you have a broad base to compare things to. I would say to talk broadly and question everything. Question yourself. Question your own ideas. Those are all important things to do.

 

This is part two of a two-part interview with Dr. David Allison.

Dr. Stover graduated from Saint Joseph’s University with a B.S. degree in Chemistry and was awarded the Molloy Chemistry Award at graduation. He received a Ph.D. degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics from the Medical College of Virginia and performed his postdoctoral studies in Nutritional Sciences at the University of California at Berkeley. Patrick Stover was elected into the National Academy of Sciences in 2016. In 2014, he was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He also he received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities and the Osborne and Mendel Award for outstanding recent basic research accomplishments in nutrition from the American Society for Nutrition.

In 2012, he received a MERIT award from NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and in 1999, he received the E.R.L. Stokstad Award in Nutritional Biochemistry from the American Society for Nutritional Sciences. In 1996, Patrick Stover received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Clinton, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers, and he has been selected as an Outstanding Educator four times by Cornell Merrill Presidential Scholars. He also serves as Editor for the Annual Review of Nutrition.

How did you first get involved in nutritional biochemistry and research? What made you interested in the field of nutrition science?

I caught the research bug through an undergraduate research experience at Saint Joseph’s University. Dr. Nelson’s research group was funded by the Naval Air Development Center and focused on the design, synthesis and function of synthetic prostaglandin oligomers as anti-ischemic agents. Studying the role and biological function of small nutrients became my passion and drove my interest in metabolism and biochemistry. I then studied enzymology and folate metabolism for my doctoral research under the mentorship of Dr. Verne Schirch at the Medical College of Virginia. This experience naturally led to an interest in nutrition and my migration to the University of California at Berkeley, when I studied folate nutrition and metabolism in the research group of Dr. Barry Shane.

When and why did you first join ASN? What value does ASN continue to provide you?

I joined ASN much later than I should have. I had regularly attended Experimental Biology and participated in ASN programming since graduate school but was most active in ASBMB. I joined ASN in1999 shortly after I was tenured as an associate professor, initially due to my interest in graduate education. I joined the Graduate Nutrition Education Committee and rose to rank of chair when we published what I believe is still a very important resource for all nutrition graduate programs: J Nutr.2002 Apr;132(4):779-84. ASN became my academic and professional home over the years—where I see old and meet new colleagues and collaborators, where my students present their research findings, where I developed leadership skills, and where I give time and treasure back to the nutrition community.

What aspects of ASN membership have you found most useful, professionally for you, your faculty and students? What other aspects of your membership do you find useful as your career has progressed?

All science is now a “social” science—collaboration is critical to address most important research questions. No one can succeed in a vacuum. Understanding how to forge meaningful and constructive partnerships through collaboration is essential to success, and ASN offers numerous opportunities to bring scientists together in an environment that promotes the exchange of ideas. Importantly, ASN also actively promotes mentoring opportunities for students and junior scientists, which has been invaluable for my students.

What aspects of your research do you foresee being most important for ASN members?

My bias is that nutrition, in all its dimensions, behaves as a complex dynamic system, and system approaches are needed to provide solutions to the problems we seek to solve. Hence, many of my current collaborators are those expert in systems biology and computer science.

Can you tell us more about your new position and what you hope to accomplish?

Perhaps the greatest challenge of our time is harmonizing agriculture, food systems, human health and environmental health. This is essential to address skyrocketing diet-related health care costs, environmental deterioration, and to ensure sustainability of our agriculture systems. Texas, as a national leader in agricultural production, coupled with its Healthy Texas A&M AgriLife Extension initiative, will be a model for aligning healthy and profitable agriculture with healthy people and healthy environments. As Vice Chancellor and Dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M University and System, I have the privilege of working with the talented faculty, academic staff, students, state-wide agencies and stakeholders to be a national model for excellence in meeting the one-health challenge through research, teaching, Extension and service.

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

For the students and trainees, do what you love and you’ll love what you do! Strive to become a world-class expert in your field and enjoy as many colleagues as you can. Share your ideas with others, and they will share openly with you. Give back to the community that has given so much to you…perhaps through the ASN Foundation!

 

The Stover research group investigates the chemical, biochemical, genetic and epigenetic mechanisms that underlie the relationships between one-carbon metabolism and human pathologies including neural tube defects, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Specific interests include the regulation of folate-mediated one-carbon metabolism and genome expression and stability, the molecular basis of the fetal origins hypothesis, development of mouse models to elucidate mechanisms of folate-related pathologies, and translational control of gene expression.

 

Richard Mattes, MPH, PhD, RD

Interview with Richard Mattes, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Nutrition Science at Purdue University, Adjunct Associate Professor of Medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine, Affiliated Scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, and Vice-President Elect for the American Society for Nutrition.

Dr. Mattes received his Ph.D. in Human Nutrition from Cornell University and conducted post-doctoral studies at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Monell Chemical Senses Center. He remained at Monell for 13 years progressing to full member. At Purdue University, Dr. Mattes is the Director of the Ingestive Behavior Research Center, and the Director of Purdue’s Public Health Graduate Program. He also holds numerous external responsibilities including Associate Editor for The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. He is also secretary of the Rose Marie Pangborn Sensory Science Scholarship Fund. Richard Mattes has been the principal investigator on National Institutes of Health grants continuously since 1984, and has authored of over 265 publications.

 

1. How did you first get involved in nutritional biochemistry and research? What made you interested in the field of nutrition science?

My original plan was to pursue a career in public health. I selected nutrition as a focus because while diet-related disorders were widespread, a large proportion appeared solvable. It was a field where one could make a difference. Following completion of my public health training, I realized I needed a deeper understanding of nutrition science to be in a position to address the issues that now seemed much more complicated. My pivot to nutrition and sensory science stemmed from my work under Shiriki Kumanyika who was interested in sodium intake and hypertension at the time as well as a recommendation by a friend to attend an illuminating course taught by Bruce Halpern, a sensory scientist in the Psychology Department at Cornell. Understanding the drivers of food choice, such as sensory function, seemed to be a critical control point for moderating diet-related chronic diseases.

2. When and why did you first join ASN? What convinced you to join the organization

I joined the American Institute of Nutrition (AIN) in 1986, immediately following completion of my post-doctoral training, when I thought I had completed a sufficient body of work to be eligible for membership. I considered it an honor to be a member of a professional association that included many of the scientists publishing work that guided my thinking. It was also an important resource for me since I was at an institution with a mission to understand the mechanisms and functions of the chemical senses, not address nutrition problems. So, while I had wonderful colleagues, few had similar training to me or similar interests and as a young scientist, I needed more feedback from people knowledgeable in nutrition. The AIN was an invaluable resource.

3. What aspects of ASN membership have you found most useful, professionally? What other aspects of your membership do you find useful as your career has progressed?

Membership benefits like access to all four ASN Journals have been, and continue to be the primary means for my keeping current with the advancing science.

4. What aspects of your research do you foresee being most important for ASN members?

My research has always been at the interface between nutrition, sensory, food and psychological sciences. I hope that it serves as a bridge to these other areas as they are integral to understanding food choice and how behavior influences physiology.

5. Can you tell us more about your current position and the research activities in which you are involved?

I currently have a split appointment. Sixty percent of my effort is devoted to building and administering a new public health graduate program. So, after over thirty years of basic and clinical research, I find myself back at my original professional aspiration. The other forty percent of my effort is as a traditional faculty member, though I do direct the Ingestive Behavior Research Center which provides a unique opportunity to train doctoral students in this area of specialization.

6. What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing nutrition researchers today? Are there any areas where you would like to see more research?

My biggest concern stems from the decreasing funding base for nutrition research. Of course, it directly limits what science can be pursued, but more insidiously, I think it drives scientists to take more advocacy roles for their area of work and this corrodes the scientific process. It also requires more time and energy being spent writing grants with the consequence being less time to engage in professional activities (e.g., reviewing manuscripts, serving on professional committees) which further hampers progress.

7. Is there anything else you’d like to tell students and postdocs within ASN?

 Invoke the word “no” as seldom as possible. Many will argue the best advice is to maintain a laser focus on one’s area of study. Not having tried this approach I can’t speak to is success. My experience is that every opportunity I’ve pursued in some way, at some time, has proven to be worthwhile.

 

Dr. Mattes’ research focuses on the areas of hunger and satiety, regulation of food intake in humans, food preferences, human cephalic phase responses and the mechanisms and functions of taste, with the objective of understanding the neural, genetic, metabolic, hormonal, cognitive, cultural and especially sensory influences on human ingestive behavior, nutrient utilization and energy balance in healthy and clinical populations.

 

Interview with Sharon Donovan, Ph.D., R.D., Professor and Melissa M. Noel Endowed Chair in Nutrition and Health in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois and Past President of the American Society for Nutrition.


Dr. Donovan received her Ph.D. in Nutrition from the University of California, Davis and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Pediatric Endocrinology at Stanford University School of Medicine. She joined the University of Illinois, Urbana in 1991, where she became Professor in 2001 and in 2003 she was named the first recipient of the Melissa M. Noel Endowed Chair in Nutrition and Health. She served as Director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences Interdisciplinary Graduate Program from 1999-2009. Dr. Donovan served as President of the American Society for Nutrition for 2011-2012. She is also President-Elect of the International Society for Research on Human Milk and Lactation (ISRHML) and she continues to provide leadership and guidance in several committees and special initiatives for ASN. In October 2017, she was elected to National Academy of Medicine.

How did you first get involved in nutrition research? What made you interested in the field of nutrition science?

I was an undergraduate student at U.C. Davis majoring in Zoology, with the intention of going to veterinary school. In my junior year, I took a physiological chemistry course (basically nutritional biochemistry) taught by Richard Freedland—and I loved the course! Afterward, I took a nutrition course in the Department of Nutrition, where Bo Lönnerdal was a guest lecturer on the topic of pediatric nutrition—and I was hooked! I switched my major to nutrition science and started doing research in his laboratory and eventually was accepted into his laboratory for my doctoral degree.

When and why did you first join ASN? What convinced you to join the organization?

I joined the former AIN in 1984 as a graduate student in nutrition at U.C. Davis and attended my first FASEB meeting in 1985. I became a Full Member in 1989. I joined because the American Society for Nutrition is the top nutrition society for basic, translational and applied research in nutrition.

What aspects of ASN membership have you found most useful, professionally? What other aspects of your membership do you find useful as your career has progressed?

ASN membership has been instrumental throughout my career. Early on, ASN provided a framework for disseminating my research through annual meetings and publications. Likewise, through ASN I was able to build a broad professional network of colleagues at other institutions in the U.S. and around the world. ASN also provided numerous leadership opportunities through the RIS groups, on the Executive Board as Councilor and Secretary and, eventually, as President of the Society. All of these activities have been very professionally fulfilling for me.

What aspects of your research do you foresee being most important for ASN members?

My laboratory conducts basic and translational research in the area of pediatric nutrition. During this phase of life, proper nutrition is of key importance for growth, development and long-term functional outcomes, such as cognition and immune response. A large focus in my lab is how early life events influence the composition and functional capacity of the gut microbiome. As we learn more about the microbiome and its relationship with many of the same diseases that have long been associated with dietary intake, it is clear that nutrition researchers should know more about this newly appreciated “organ”.

Can you tell us more about your current position and the research activities in which you are involved?

I am a Professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition and am affiliated with the Division of Nutritional Sciences and the Department of Pediatrics. Currently, my collaborators and I are investigating dietary approaches to improve the structural and functional development of the intestine and the brain, and the development of gut microbiome and the gut-brain-microbiome axis. In addition, I enjoy engaging with researchers in other fields to conduct transdisciplinary research focused on ways to prevent childhood obesity and picky eating behaviors and to reduce the severity of symptoms in children with autism.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing nutrition researchers today? Are there any areas where you would like to see more research?

Obviously, research funding continues to be a challenge for researchers in all areas. However, given the importance of nutrition in health and chronic disease prevention, I believe that there are many opportunities for nutrition researchers for interdisciplinary collaborations, which can be very attractive for funding agencies. In my opinion, more research is needed in understanding the contribution of the individual to interactions with diet and other environmental factors. For example, what role are host genetics and epigenetics genetics playing in responses to diet? This has been a hot area of research for a decade, but has not been fully translated to clinical medicine. Similarly, we need to know a lot more about the host aspect of host-microbe interactions, if we are going to tease out the role that the microbiome plays in health and disease.

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

I encourage everyone to take the opportunity to get involved in ASN. There are opportunities to “dip your toe” in the water and see how you like it! The RIS’s and other membership engagement groups, such as the Student Interest Group and the Postdoc/Early Career Nutrition Interest Group are great places to get involved. Networking is critical, particularly at earlier stages of your career, and professional contacts made through networking can help open doors that lead to opportunities, including internships, postdocs and jobs. Later in your career, being known by your colleagues can help with getting letters of P&T or learning about new positions in industry.

Interview with Elizabeth J. Parks, Professor at the University of Missouri and Past Chair of the ASN Publications Committee

Since 2013, Dr. Parks has been a Professor in the Department of Nutrition & Exercise Physiology and Associate Director of the Clinical Research Center in the Institute for Clinical Translational Science at the University of Missouri (fondly known as Mizzou). Previously, she was Associate Professor in Clinical Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Recently, she received the University of Missouri School of Medicine’s 2015 Award for Excellence in Junior Faculty Research Mentoring and the 2016 Robert I. Levy Award from the Kinetics and Metabolism Society.

1. How did you first get involved in nutrition epidemiology and research? What made you interested in the field of nutrition science?

The genetics of heart disease strongly affects the health of my family, and influenced my academic path. Early in my career, I worked as a technician in a lab with cardiovascular researchers who stressed the importance of nutritional strategies in treating chronic diseases. I was impressed with how a prudent diet could improve health.

2. When and why did you first join ASN? What convinced you to join the organization?

ASN was the scientific organization that my mentor, Barbara Schneeman, was active in. Like many other graduate students, my first scientific presentation was at EB and over the past 27 years, membership has benefited my career in many ways. I learned early on that being involved in professional associations was the key to success, and that’s true for any career. These organizations provide essential networking opportunities – even simply talking to someone at a conference poster presentation can change the course of your academic or career trajectory.

3. What aspects of ASN membership have you found most useful, professionally? What other aspects of your membership do you find useful as your career has progressed?

Attending the scientific meeting has been the most rewarding. Aside from the excellent science presented there, this is the venue I attend to mentor and to be mentored. It is very rewarding to follow colleagues as their careers advance and to witness how a scientific life can have such a positive impact on others. At conferences, we have the chance to speak with people who are in a similar life stage as you, and we’re surrounded by others who understand the difficult life of a scientist. If you’re struggling to solve a problem, you have an audience of experienced researchers who can offer many possible solutions.

4. What aspects of your research do you foresee being most important for ASN members?

I study how the body’s metabolism changes when we are fasting and then eat a meal. Food consumption is the physiologic challenge that our bodies are exquisitely designed to manage. In health, right at the beginning of a meal, a complete 180 degree shift in metabolic flux occurs. The body switches from burning stored nutrients (body fat and glycogen), to absorbing, burning and storing the nutrients in the meal. Importantly, in chronic disease, this switch is not well regulated and it is this inefficiency that causes disease pathologies.

5. Can you tell us more about your current position and the research activities in which you are involved?

At Mizzou, I am fortunate to be surrounded by some of the best human physiologists in the U.S. working in state-of-the-art facilities. We have many collaborative projects that investigate the effects of over-eating and sedentary behavior on metabolism. One NIH-funded study focuses on the benefits of diet and exercise to treat nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. We hypothesize that weight loss and improved fitness, both shown to reduce liver disease, do so through a mechanism of enhanced mitochondrial activity. This project would not be possible without the collaboration of faculty in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology.

6. What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing nutrition researchers today? Are there any areas where you would like to see more research?

One of the biggest challenges facing us is that the power of the scientific approach is currently under-appreciated in our culture. Some people want to believe that a particular nutritional strategy will solve all ills. Since nutrition messages in the press have appeared to be contradictory (this week, “Coffee is good for you,” next week, “coffee is bad for you.”), this has led many in the public to just tune us out. Our discipline has the same attributes of other sciences – information is ever evolving. Thus, dietary advice may also change over the years. We need to do a better job of communicating how nutrition science leads to discoveries that can benefit individuals and improve the health of citizens.

Nutrition science is also by nature interdisciplinary, and we must cross disciplines in order to be effective. We must work in teams: animal researchers can collaborate with human researchers to make sure their results will apply to the human condition, and epidemiologists can get more mechanistic with data collection. It doesn’t make sense for any one person to attempt a novel discovery, and we will be more effective once communication across disciplines improves.

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

I have four concepts for mentees to mull over. First, bring energy to your training environment. You need energy, self-motivation and organization to flourish in an academic setting. Trainees must reach out and grab a hold of the experiences that are presented to them. If a mentor is writing a grant or review paper, ask to participate in the process. If another trainee needs assistance in acquiring data, volunteer to help them. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to assist others. Give your time to a professional organization and mentor those around you. The time spent in a doctoral program or postdoctoral fellowship will go by quickly and these environments provide once-in-a lifetime opportunities to learn.

Second, give your mentors a break. Mentees frequently do not know all the pressures and responsibilities their mentors are up against. In a research lab setting, because your mentor has built that environment, you get to learn in it; spend some time to learn what your mentor has gone through to get where they are. The worst situation to be in is when we don’t know what we don’t know – it is much better to be wrong and know why. So find out what your mentor’s job is really like: what are their current challenges, and how can you help them be successful?

Third, set goals, but enjoy your work along the way. In academics, our paths are frequently like being on a treadmill, forever going up hill. The feeling can be, ‘you have not succeeded until you’ve finished your doctoral degree.’ Then, you’ve not succeeded until you’ve completed postdoctoral experiences. Next, you aren’t a success until you get your first job. And then there’s the goal of promotion and tenure. If you wait until you have achieved a promotion to be happy, you will have been unhappy a good portion of your career. It is important to find a way to enjoy the everyday work of science…even when it means repeating that experiment a third time!

Lastly, embrace the complexity of your science. Despite the huge gains that have been made in understanding the molecular control of gene expression, much less is known about the individual responses of human physiology to nutrients and dietary patterns. Understanding the factors that contribute to individual responses will be key to future developments in precision medicine. This field is complex but it represents one avenue of nutrition science that is wide open for discovery.

Dr. Parks’ research interests include cephalic phase of food intake and sensory effects on absorption of lipids, the effect of dietary macronutrients on the development of obesity-related disorders, non-alcoholic hepatic steatosis, liver inflammation, and postprandial metabolism, and modeling of non-steady state kinetics in metabolism.

Interview with Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and Advisor for the ASN Early Career Nutrition (ECN) Interest Group

Dr. Nestle is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, where she has been since 1988. She is also a professor of Sociology at NYU and a visiting professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University. Recently, she won writing and literary awards from the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals for her most recent book, Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning).

1. How did you first get involved in nutrition epidemiology and research? What made you interested in the field of nutrition science?

My doctorate is in molecular biology (nucleic acid enzymology) so I have longstanding experience in science. My first teaching job was in the Biology Department at Brandeis University, where I ran the undergraduate biology laboratory courses and taught molecular and cell biology to majors and premeds.
The department was unusual in having two teaching rules: you could only teach the same course three times in a row (so you stayed fresh), and you had to teach whatever the department needed (because you knew more than undergraduates). When my three years of cell biology were up and it was time for me to switch courses, it turned out that students had been petitioning the department to teach human biology courses. I was offered a choice of human physiology or human nutrition, and picked nutrition.
This was in the mid-1970s. Two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling had just published Vitamin C and the Common Cold, and Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet was on the best seller list. Michael Jacobson had just launched Center for Science in the Public Interest and published Food for People, Not for Profit, a book of essays about food topics that could have been written yesterday. I picked nutrition to teach because I was curious to know whether there was any science behind any of this.
To find out, I started reading the literature. I soon discovered that there is plenty of science but that humans make terrible experimental animals. Methods are imprecise and results hard to interpret. Whereas teaching cell and molecular biology means teaching students to accept abstractions that they cannot see, taste, smell, or feel, teaching nutrition was fun—and a fabulous way to teach critical thinking in biology. In those days, any undergraduate could read a nutrition research paper and see inadequacies in methods or interpretation. It was like falling in love and I’ve never looked back.

2. When and why did you first join ASN? What convinced you to join the organization

I left Brandeis for a job teaching nutrition to medical students at UCSF, where we created a coordinated program we called Nutrition UCSF. I worked with faculty in various specialties to put that together. We had a federal grant to teach nutrition to medical students and physicians. Some of the faculty were involved in developing nutrition support teams to work with hospitalized patients. I worked with them to establish the Northern California chapter of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition and started going to its meetings. At one of them, I met Lyn Howard (from Albany Medical College), and she suggested I join the American Society for Clinical Nutrition and the American Institute for Nutrition, the ASN forerunners. She sponsored my applications, and I felt honored when they were accepted. This must have been in the early 1980s, but I can’t find a record of the exact year.

3. What aspects of ASN membership have you found most useful, professionally? What other aspects of your membership do you find useful as your career has progressed?

I came into the nutrition field from outside it and didn’t know who was who or what was what for a long time. I should add that toward the end of my sojourn at UCSF it was clear that I needed nutrition credentials and I did a master’s in public health nutrition at Berkeley. I did my public health field work as a consultant for the Agency for International Development in Southeast Asia, and went from there to Washington, DC as senior nutrition policy advisor to the Department of Health and Human Services, where I edited the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health. For one regrettable reason or another, I’ve never been able to attend annual meetings regularly so my main contact with ASN has been through its journals. I mostly know ASN members through other professional routes.

4. What aspects of your research do you foresee being most important for ASN members?

The most important one has to do with conflicts of interest. I’ve been increasingly concerned about the damage to the reputation of nutrition researchers caused by financial ties to food companies with a vested interest in the outcome of their research. I was embarrassed for our profession by Michele Simon’s report: “Nutrition Scientists on the Take from Big Food: Has the American Society for Nutrition Lost All Credibility.” I spoke about my concerns at the initial meeting of ASN’s current “truth” committee and am looking forward to its forthcoming report.

5. Can you tell us more about your current position and the research activities in which you are involved?

I am answering these questions a couple of months before I officially retire from NYU after 29 years, although I don’t expect much to change in my professional life. I am keeping my office and title for a few more years, at least. My current book project is about the effects of food industry funding of nutrition research and practice. This is a long-standing concern that I’ve been writing about occasionally since 2001, including in Soda Politics. I decided to do the book after reading the New York Times’ front-page story on Coca-Cola’s funding of investigators behind the Global Energy Balance Network, whose leaders argued that physical inactivity is more important than overeating in determining body weight. This book will have a chapter about the reputational risks of ASN’s financial ties to food companies.

6. What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing nutrition researchers today? Are there any areas where you would like to see more research?
I’ve always believed that the most intellectually challenging problem in our field is determining what people actually eat. Everyone other than nutrition professionals thinks getting dietary information is easy and so is relating it to chronic disease risk. But I think formulating research questions and designing studies to answer questions about diet and health are enormously difficult and I have great respect for everyone who takes on such questions. That’s the intellectual challenge.
The more practical challenge is the need for fully independent funding. Federal funding for nutrition research is limited and the cuts threatened by the Trump Administration will only make the need more critical. Without independent funding, the nutrition research agenda gets skewed in favor of projects food companies can use for marketing. The big research questions are to define dietary patterns that promote health, find ways to provide healthful diets to people who lack resources, and identify effective dietary approaches to preventing noncommuncable diseases.

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

This is a field that badly needs well trained researchers who can tackle the complex biological, social, and political issues related to food and nutrition on the research agenda. These are tough issues to address and they need all the help they can get. I’m planning to end my book about food industry funding with advice to stakeholders. My advice to students and postdocs is to be careful about accepting research funding from any company that has even the remotest interest in the outcome of their studies. The evidence that industry funding influences research outcome is overwhelming and undeniable. Furthermore, recipients are unconscious of the influence, making protection difficult. If at all possible, find another source of funding. If your research supervisor insists that you accept industry funding, consider working with another research supervisor. Credibility and integrity matter a lot at every career stage. You might as well start yours out right.

Dr. Nestle’s research and writing examine scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice, obesity, and food safety, emphasizing the role of food marketing. Her interests in nutrition and food policy and politics include food and nutrition policy development and analysis (domestic and international), with a focus on dietary guidance, social and environmental influences on food choice, and the effects of food industry marketing on diet and health; and communicating information about the links among agriculture, food, nutrition, and health to students, professionals, and the public. Since 2002, she has written eight books on such topics. Her next book, tentatively titled “Buying Nutrition Science: How Food Industry Sponsorship Skews Research and Harms Public Health,” will be published by Basic Books late in 2018.

May 2017 Member Highlight Interview for ASN Nutrition Notes eNewsletter:

Interview with Laura E Murray-Kolb, Professor at Pennsylvania State University and Chair of the ASN Membership Committee

Dr. Murray Kolb is Associate Professor and Professor-in-Charge of the Graduate Program of the Department of Nutritional Sciences in the College of Health and Human Development at Penn State University, where she has been since 2010. Previously, she was Assistant Professor in the Department of International Health, Program in Human Nutrition at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health where she continues to hold an adjunct faculty position. Recently, she was the 2016 recipient of the American Society for Nutrition’s Norman Kretchmer Memorial Award in Nutrition and Development, given to a young investigator for a substantial body of independent research in the field of nutrition and development with potential relevance to improving child health. Dr. Murray-Kolb was honored for her innovative studies on the influence of iron deficiency on mother/child interactions and subsequent child development.

1. How did you first get involved in nutrition research? What made you interested in the field of nutrition science?

Ever since high school, I was interested in finding ways to improve health with good nutrition, to enhance athletic performance, to show how eating nutritious foods could lead to better health. My goal was to become a surgeon, and I took a couple of nutrition courses. I delayed medical school and got my Master’s Degree in nutrition, as I felt it was important to have a strong foundation in nutrition in order to become a good doctor. During my early years in graduate school, I became passionate about nutrition research, thanks to the mentorship of John Beard. His enthusiasm for research was almost contagious! I went on to get my PhD in Nutrition as I wanted to pursue a career where I had the opportunity to explore questions not yet answered, and to work with brilliant scientists who are also looking for those answers. I have the good fortune to be active in the field, looking for ways to improve health with good nutrition, especially for mothers and children.

2. When and why did you first join ASN? What convinced you to join the organization?

Like many members I joined ASN as a student, getting ready to present my abstract at the 2004 ASN meeting at EB. My mentor encouraged me to join and to become active in ASN. At EB, I became exposed to the wonderful science I now get to practice. I felt (and still feel) proud to be a part of the premier global organization in nutrition science, to be witness to the latest scientific findings, and to help influence nutrition policy worldwide.

3. What aspects of ASN membership have you found most useful, professionally? What other aspects of your membership do you find useful as your career has progressed?

Having access to the leading journals in the field is a key membership benefit for me. Penn State also has access to ASN journals, but my personal access has been huge professionally to keep current with the latest research while on the road. I like the feeling of ASN as a home with my professional family, where I can reach out to other members with questions, to look for answers from scientists and researchers who may have experience in those areas. I also find networking opportunities at ASN as a huge benefit, feeling confident that ASN members have received the quality training I’m looking for, to get their opinions and perspectives. I’m excited to see the use of networking tools like ASN NutriLink to get the conversation started about topics of interest by the community. I also feel I can trust the opinions of other ASN members.

4. What aspects of your research do you foresee being most important for ASN members?

After my formal training in nutrition, as a postdoc, I had the opportunity to gain advanced training in psychology and child development. While those fields were very different than mine, I now have an understanding of best practices in the fields of nutrition, psychology, and child development. I learned about processes and techniques from psychology and have been able to marry them with those used in nutrition in order to conduct research which furthers our understanding of the association between micronutrient levels and cognitive outcomes. I think that multidisciplinary techniques need to be employed to examine the complex problems that we are trying to understand today and I’d like to see more ASN members incorporate best practices and findings from related fields in their research. My hope is that our research findings will help to improve global health for everyone. Solid, evidence-based, scientific discoveries will be a catalyst for shaping health policies globally.

5. Can you tell us more about your current position and the research activities in which you are involved?

I work as Associate Professor, which entails research, teaching, and service–as s a land grant institution, Penn State is committed to service. I teach both undergrad and graduate courses in Advanced Nutrition and Metabolism, Pathophysiology, Epidemiology, and Global Health. I also help train graduate students in the lab, with a large undergrad group of students in honors classes and volunteers. My research activities are both overseas and in the US. While most of my field research is overseas, mechanistic studies are primarily at Penn States, where we have state of the art equipment to help identify what’s going on in the brain. The majority of my research work is with iron deficiencies, either with the mom or child, and on behavior and cognitive development. My geographic research areas are Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America.

6. What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing nutrition researchers today? Are there any areas where you would like to see more research?

Because nutrition is an interdisciplinary field, the main challenge is with regard to funding at all levels, thus we need to ensure that funders understand the importance of nutrition research. Another challenge is that people from all sorts of backgrounds claim to be nutrition experts and they don’t necessarily convey evidence-based nutrition, thus confusing the message about what is good nutrition.
The microbiome is an area ripe for research, where there’s a lot of promise. There’s a particular rising interest in the gut-brain axis. However, we should be cautious about interpretation of research findings. Change is not necessarily bad; we need more research before we can properly characterize the changes that we observe in the microbiome under various experimental conditions. There is so much to learn.

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

My biggest piece of advice is for everyone, especially young scientists, to be rigorous about research; don’t take shortcuts. We need to do good science–do your homework, don’t be in a hurry, take your time, slow down, and read the literature. We must be rigorous about what we do and follow the scientific method. Our findings will have a lifelong impact on health. We need to learn from the past to keep moving forward, despite challenges from people claiming to be “nutrition experts”. I encourage students and postdocs to get involved, and to volunteer with ASN, and not be afraid to ask questions. Being active in the society will help you to make connections and learn from those who have experience. Pass it on, learn from others and give back to help those behind you!

Dr. Murray-Kolb’s research interests include micronutrient deficiencies (assessment, causes, neurocognitive/neurophysiological/behavioral consequences, prevention), maternal and child interactions, child development, cognition and affect, biofortification, iron, anemia, and international health.