By Allison Dostal, PhD, RD
Dept. of Medicine, University of Minnesota Medical Center, Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition
ASN’s immediate Past President Patrick J. Stover, PhD, has been elected as a new member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in recognition of his achievements for original science and research in nutrition. In addition to his important work with ASN and the NAS, he directs Cornell University’s Division of Nutritional Sciences and maintains an active research program. Through all of these accomplishments, Dr. Stover hasn’t lost sight of the many pitfalls, challenges, and chance happenings that have led him to the successful career he has today. In this interview, Dr. Stover discusses his trajectory from graduate student to ASN’s 2015-2016 president and NAS member and offers valuable insights that both young and established scientists can take to heart.
“Relationships are so important in science. They’re absolutely critical.”
Planning a career after completion of a PhD takes considerable, thought, effort, and not a small amount of stress. And yet, there’s no denying the power of chance and serendipity. For Dr. Stover, attendance of a summer conference in Vermont just one week before defending his dissertation forever changed his career focus. “They had messed up room assignments – I was supposed to room with my PhD advisor, and instead I ended up rooming with chair of nutrition at Berkeley, Barry Shane. My intention was to do a postdoc in crystallography and catalytic antibodies, because my PhD is in biochemistry. But I got that room assignment, and Barry and I just got along so well that week. I kept trying to find my thesis to do my thesis corrections, but he kept taking it with him because he wanted to read it. I changed my postdoc plans and went to Berkeley in nutrition. That’s really how I got introduced to nutrition – through that gratuitous error in roommate assignments.”
When asked what he believed his greatest career accomplishment to be, Dr. Stover immediately responded, “Oh, that’s easy. The greatest accomplishment is finding and working with some absolutely wonderful collaborators and mentors. This also includes students. The successes have always been finding the right people to work with that enable you to address the important questions, of both scientific importance but also public health importance.”
Stover was trained as a metabolic biochemist when he first started his faculty position, with an interest in folate metabolism. He soon realized that the most important questions that matched his interests were related to fundamental mechanisms of the role of folate in birth defect prevention. “We knew it worked; we didn’t know why it worked. And going out and finding people who were experts in embryonic development or an expert in cancer, and being able to work with…people who were experts in these other areas who didn’t know about or weren’t familiar with the science that I knew, [we were able to] put those two together and solve interesting problems and learn new techniques.”
“All good research starts with an interesting, important question.”
This concept is “absolutely paramount” for young scientists to understand as they enter a research career, Stover says. Along with this, “You really have to love what you do. You have to love asking these questions and love doing research.” After having this foundation and investment in the work of discovery, the next step is ensuring that one has the proper training, tools, and collaborators to be able to address the important question at hand.
“You have to collaborate. You don’t have to know everything, but you have to know what you don’t know and who you need to work with to be successful.”
Dr. Stover acknowledged that today, a lot of the important questions that many of us are interested in require multidisciplinary approaches and collaborative work, because these problems require different perspectives, tools, and techniques.
He also mentioned that throughout the years, ASN’s Graduate Nutrition Education Committee had written pieces about the importance of being an expert in something, but also having a broad knowledge base. “You have to be deep in what your expertise is – your disciplinary expertise and your technical expertise. But that’s not enough to address many of the important public health problems and the important scientific questions we have.”
Dr. Stover also recognized the increasing importance of communicating our science to other researchers and the general public. “A lot of us increasingly have to be well aware that what we’re interested in, and what excites us, has to be effectively communicated to external audiences so that they’re excited to support our work, [and to] the federal government so they’re excited to fund our work”.
Many of the issues Stover has had to navigate as a scientist are not unlike those that concern young investigators today. When discussing the biggest challenge that he’s had to face in his career, he emphasized the difficult transition from focused researcher to faculty member. “As academic faculty…we get our positions because we’ve been good at research. And then we get these faculty positions and we get put in offices, and we get asked to teach, and we get asked to manage personnel, and get asked to manage budgets and do some administration, for which we are utterly unqualified and untrained for, for the most part. I think being an assistant professor is really, really tough.” He noted vast improvements in career training tools since he first became an assistant professor in 1994, highlighting ASN’s workshops on effective teaching, mentoring, and skill sets needed for professional development.
As he continues to amass accolades and respect for his scientific career, Dr. Stover shows no sign of slowing down. When asked about the nutrition science-related goals he would like to achieve, he offered insight for both his own research program and for ASN. “In my own work, we continue to be really interested in the molecular basis of pathology related to folate metabolism, because we’re very interested in how folate requirements differ among individuals and how those affect important endpoints like genome stability and gene expression.” He also spoke about improving nutritional approaches to address diseases such as neuropathy, cancers, and neural tube defects, all of which are tied into folate’s role in human health. “We want to provide an engineering approach to understand how these things work and how nutrition throughout the life cycle can be used to improve the quality of life and wellness of life.”
He also intends on having a broader impact. Stover acknowledged that the number of ASN members elected into the National Academy of Sciences is very small, despite the excellent work produced by nutrition researchers that belong to ASN. “We need to get more outstanding nutrition scientists into greater visibility. I want to really work for that as well.
This interview has been condensed and edited.