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.