April 2017 Member Highlight Interview for ASN Nutrition Notes eNewsletter:
Interview with Robert Bertolo, Professor, Department of Biochemistry, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Vice Chair of ASN Publications Management Committee, and Immediate Past President of the Canadian Nutrition Society
Dr. Bertolo has been with the Memorial University of Newfoundland since 2002. He trained at the Universities of Guelph and Alberta studying nutrition and metabolism during development with a focus on amino acid and protein nutrition. As a Professor of Nutrition and Metabolism and Canada Research Chair in Human Nutrition, his current research involves the neonatal use of amino acids for growth and non-growth requirements.
1. How did you first get involved in biochemistry and nutrition? What made you interested in the field?
My undergraduate degree was in liberal arts with a minor in biochemistry and when it came time to choose my honours thesis topic, a course in nutritional biochemistry by Stephanie Atkinson piqued my interest. The work in the lab was exciting and that environment felt like home. So I started my MSc at Guelph in nutrition shortly thereafter and never looked back. What I really enjoyed about studying nutrition and metabolism is the combination of mechanisms with real world applicability. Anyone who eats is a self-declared expert in nutrition so the field is uniquely influenced by the public and is very dynamic. There’s always so much to learn, and even more to teach.
2. When and why did you first join ASN? What convinced you to join the organization?
As with most of us, I first joined ASN as a graduate student to get connected with the network of researchers and to present our data. It’s a testament to ASN’s support of trainees that we all join so early. My first EB was an unforgettable experience of excitement, nerves, intellectual stimulation and fun. Presenting to the names on your reference list is quite the experience, but also realizing they’re all just regular folks made it so rewarding. After that first conference, ASN became the home base for networking with international experts and learning about many other disciplines within nutrition.
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?
Probably the most important asset to membership is the networking opportunities with nutritionists from around the world. ASN is the gathering place for nutritionists from around the world and it allows you to learn about peripheral topics in nutrition so you don’t get consumed by your own little niche. A key part of this networking is getting involved in ASN activities including RIS events, committees, judging, etc. That’s really where you meet wonderful people of all career levels and from various disciplines. Many collaborations (and friendships) are started in the hallway between sessions or at a poster or at a break during the committee meetings. The world of research today is all about team effort, so these connections are key to research success.
4. How do you see ASN’s role in the nutrition community?
I was president of Canadian Nutrition Society shortly after it too was formed from the merger of nutritional sciences and clinical nutrition societies. ASN was a model we used to build a community of nutritionists with different goals and priorities. We admired ASN’s ability to grow and be strong, while at the same time taking risks and constantly looking for opportunities. It was because of our similar goals that we established a joint membership opportunity and we continue to collaborate. And beyond Canada, ASN has made it a point to link with many nutrition societies internationally which is a testament to their role as global leaders.
5. Can you tell us more about your current position and the research in which you are involved?
I am full professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, which is on the eastern edge of North America. It is a mid-size university in a beautiful location with a great collaborative atmosphere. For research, I am interested in amino acid metabolism and how it affects requirements in different situations. Currently, I am trying to determine how neonatal nutrition and methyl metabolism affect programming of risk for developing obesity and hypertension. From a nutritional perspective, my question is how much methionine is needed to maintain growth and methylation demands and which pathways take priority when nutrition is inadequate. We have some exciting data on the non-protein pathways of methionine and are able to quantify these fluxes using tracer kinetics. I also have other research on amino acid requirements during intestinal stress, such as in parenteral feeding and short bowel syndrome. Overall, I try to conduct all of my research by building a team of experts to enhance the research questions and outcomes. I feel this is the key to research success.
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?
The funding climate has become very difficult, especially for young researchers. There is a short-sighted emphasis to funnel more money to the top researchers which starves the more modest base. I think the key for young nutrition researchers is collaboration and to lead team approaches to big ideas. Don’t be afraid to have someone take you out of your comfort zone; we’re to learn after all. In terms of areas of future research, I think we need more understanding of nutrition behaviours and food environments. We have known for a long time what we should eat to be healthy, but we can’t seem to convince the public to do it. I am also concerned about food insecurity in North America and more work at the policy level is needed resolve this issue. And all of this relates back to the obesity epidemic, which is a very modern issue that has eluded effective solutions.
7. Is there anything else you’d like to tell ASN members, especially students and postdocs?
I think the key message for trainees is to get involved. There are many opportunities out there that could lead to something great. Almost none of us foresaw our current path as students and so trying to plan a specific outcome is just not realistic. Get involved in ASN and other societies and meet people. Most of us are where we are after a chance meeting with someone at the right time and that happens by getting out there. So get involved!
Editor’s Note: Under Dr. Bertolo’s leadership, ASN and CNS began offering joint memberships in 2015.