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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.