Interview with Juan Rivera Dommarco

March 2017 Member Highlight Interview for ASN Nutrition Notes eNewsletter:

Interview with Juan Rivera Dommarco, Director of the National Institutes of Public Health (INSP) of Mexico, President of the Latin American Nutrition Society (SLAN), and Executive Board Member of the Ibero-American Nutrition Foundation (FINUT)

Dr. Rivera is the newly appointed Director of the National Institutes of Public Health, where he has been since 1993. There he founded the Center for Research in Nutrition and Health in 2001. He is also Professor of Nutrition in the School of Public Health of Mexico and Adjunct Professor at Emory University. Dr. Rivera has published more than 400 scientific articles, book chapters, and books, and made more than 500 presentations and conferences at scientific events. He is past recipient of the Kellogg International Nutrition Research Award from ASN, granted for active engagement in research to benefit populations in nonindustrialized countries, as demonstrated through publications in the scientific literature, and actively engaged in training new scientists for international nutrition research.

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

My original motivation was poverty and inequity. Most Latin American Countries, including Mexico have profound inequities. Since childhood, I felt social inequalities were morally wrong. During high school, I read several books about social injustice, including Josue de Castro’s recounts of inequity, and a direct indicator of inequity was hunger and undernutrition. After high school, I spent some time in an indigenous community in Chiapas, where I witnessed poverty very closely. That is when I decided to devote my life to fight undernutrition, hunger, and their health effects. My undergraduate training was in nutrition and food sciences at the Universidad Iberoamericana, a Jesuit University in Mexico City with a mystic about poverty alleviation. I did my internship training with Dr. Joaquín Cravioto, a prominent Mexican scientist interested in undernutrition and mental development. He inspired me to become a nutrition scientist. I started reading the works of Scrimshaw, Habicht, and Martorell at INCAP in Guatemala and I corresponded with Jean-Pierre Habicht, who invited me to visit the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. After my visit, I decided to undergo postgraduate training in Nutrition at that University.

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

I was first introduced to ASN in 1983, while I was a graduate student at Cornell University, and I officially became a member in 1991. My Committee Chair and mentor, Jean-Pierre Habicht, considered as part of the training of his students to attend the then called FASEB Meetings to present the results of our research. As many other of his students, I joined ASN and attended the meetings.

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 appreciate the opportunity to keep up-to-date about new knowledge in the area of global nutrition, along with the high quality of the research results presented and lively discussions at Experimental Biology. I also advocate for ASN journals, in which I have published repeatedly, and I enjoy the opportunity to meet with colleagues and old friends during ASN meetings, where we often discuss new research and explore collaborations. More recently, ASN meetings have exposed my students to high quality works and allowed them to share the results of their studies with other nutrition scientists.

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

In Mexico, we face the double burden of undernutrition and obesity; therefore, we are conducting research aimed at solving these two problems, which together are of great interest to the Global Nutrition Council and to much of the ASN membership:
 We have been monitoring the magnitude and trends of the double burden of malnutrition in Mexico during the last 30 years through national nutrition surveys.
 We are conducting birth cohort studies looking at the relationship between maternal feeding and weight status and gain during gestation, as well as infant feeding practices and several outcomes at different points in time during childhood and adolescence, including appetite and satiety, growth, weight gain, cardiometabolic risks, and neurodevelopment.
 We are also generating knowledge for the design of policies for the prevention and control of the double burden of malnutrition, including programs for the prevention for stunting, anemia, and micronutrient deficiencies and policies for the prevention and control of obesity, including fiscal measures and school regulations, among others.
 Finally, we are conducting evaluations of the effects of several programs and policies applied by the Government for the prevention and control of the double burden of malnutrition.

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

On February 16, I was appointed as Director General of the Mexican National Public Health Institute (INSP), the research and training institution that houses the Mexican School of Public Health. We conduct research in several public health topics including: nutrition, obesity and non-communicable chronic diseases, infectious diseases, environmental health, health systems research, reproductive health, health promotion, etc. and we offer twenty-eight Masters and PhD programs. We have around 1,200 employees and close to 500 students in three campuses. I am personally involved in the research activities mentioned above: monitoring the double burden in the population, birth cohort studies to assess the effects of infant feeding practices, generation knowledge for the design of policies for the prevention and control of the double burden, and evaluating the effects of some of those policies applied by the Government.

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 in Public Health Nutrition is translating research results into clinical and public health large-scale interventions and their rigorous evaluation for further improvement. To do this we need research from subcellular particles (molecular biology) to programs and policy. This includes linking the wealth of information coming from basic research, particularly from molecular biology, to clinical and public health innovative actions. We also need to study the drivers and determinants of the double burden of malnutrition and its health and environmental consequences using a systems approach, since nutrition problems are multifactorial and complex. We need to understand the food system but also the factors influencing behaviors (food and physical activity). We also need to study how to influence sound policy-making, including the roles of direct advising to policy makers and of social mobilization to generate demand for policy. Finally, we need to conduct rigorous evaluations in order to inform policy makers about improvements in current policies.
March 2017 ASN Nutrition Notes Member Highlight
Interview with Dr. Juan Rivera Dommarco – Page 3

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

To Students and postdocs: The phrase “First do no harm” (Latin Primum non nocere) is believed to have been part of the original Hippocratic oath taken by physicians. We nutritionists do not take a similar oath, but we should. You have the privilege to be a fraction of people in the world who have access to postgraduate training. You chose Nutritional Sciences, a field that can have a profound impact on the health and wellbeing of millions of people. You should be generous, because life has been generous to you. You should pay back to those in poverty, to the neediest persons in the world, for the privilege to have reached postgraduate training, in an activity that can change the lives of many. However, most importantly, do not harm the nutrition and health of people by promoting or endorsing unhealthy food and beverage products. To the general ASN membership, I would like to invite you to attend the SLAN Congress in Mexico in late 2018, showcasing the best nutrition research from Mexico and Latin America.

Dr. Rivera’s research interests include the epidemiology of stunting (under-nutrition and obesity), the short- and long-term effects of under-nutrition during early childhood, the effects of zinc and other micronutrient deficiencies on growth and health, the study of malnutrition in Mexico, and the design and evaluation of policies and programs to improve nutritional status of populations.

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