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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.

Becoming an Expert: Easy as 1, 2, 3 (Almost)
By Debbie Fetter

As part of ASN’s Scientific Sessions, the ASN Young Professional Interest Group (YPIG) organized a session called, “Establishing Yourself as an Expert.” I (virtually) sat down with the co-chairs, Eric D. Ciappio, PhD, RD and Mary N. Lesser, PhD, RD, to get more insight into the presentations.

Q. What was the purpose of the session?

A. The purpose of this session was to provide some guidance to early career professionals looking to establish themselves as experts in their specific corners of nutrition science. We heard from four respected experts in different areas of nutrition who helped young scientists understand best practices for communication and interacting with colleagues.

Q. What did it address?

A. While technical knowledge is important, another large part of being an expert in nutrition is being viewed as one by your peers in the field. This session addressed this latter point and aimed to help young professionals develop their communication skills to help them become viewed as experts in the field. We split this topic into two main themes, which we referred to as “internal communication” and “external communication.” The “external communication” bucket focused on communicating with the broader field of nutrition via academic publications and social media – both of which are demonstrated essentials for early career professionals in the modern age. The “internal communication” bucket addressed methods to improve in-person interactions with your colleagues, both in one-on-one settings as well as finding ways to guide a group of strong scientific minds to a consensus opinion.

Q. What were the main takeaways for the attendees?

A. We believe the largest takeaway was that effective communication is the most important career skill that we never think about. As scientists, we can often become so focused on increasing our technical knowledge and expertise that we forget about the human element of the profession. Nurturing working relationships with colleagues is an essential skill early career professionals need to develop to enhance and to continue to advance in their careers.

Q. What are your personal do’s and don’ts for advancing your career? Or which were your favorites from the session?

A. EC: I think taking time to establish personal connections with your colleagues is the best thing you can do for your career. Your professional network is probably the most valuable piece of portable currency you have, and growing that network benefits both your organization (regardless of whether you are in academia, industry, government, etc.) and your own career.

A. ML: Definitely taking the time to establish meaningful, personal connections with your colleagues, no matter what capacity (mentor, mentee, faculty, staff, student, etc.) is key. These are the individuals whom you will be working alongside and will be your resources or source of support in a variety of settings. Also, never underestimate the value of a good “thank you” and paying it forward.

Q. How does it seem social media will change science communications?

A. Social media offers an opportunity to be a part of the conversation on nutrition. While academic publications are a mainstay of scientific discourse among scientists, the public discussion of science – particularly nutrition science – takes place much more rapidly than the traditional academic publication model allows. Social media also engages the public in a way that traditional publications never have. With so much public interest in nutrition there is incredible value in being a credible and accurate source of information that can effectively engage the public to help educate them about the relationship between diet and health. Effectively utilizing social media offers a platform for nutrition scientists (early or more advanced in their careers) to do just that.

Q. What are some key ways to work together as a group? Is it always possible to come to a group consensus?

A. Once again, effective communication is the key. In her session, Dr. King stressed the importance of clearly outlining the goals of the group and taking time to understand each person’s stance on the issues up for discussion. Finding a way that pleases all parties with conflicting opinions may not always be possible, but respectful communication and compromise can help guide the group to remain productive and conclude with a census or working census outcome.

Q. Why is it important to have good working relationships with your colleagues? How do you manage a good working relationship with someone who has conflicting opinions from you?

A. Having strong working relationships with your colleagues is not only a way to accomplish your daily professional goals, but also the best way to move your career forward. We learn about so many opportunities – potential jobs, speaking engagements, serving on committees – from our colleagues. And while having a solid relationship with someone may not always be enough to land you that opportunity, more often than not, having a poor relationship with a colleague in a position to help you is almost certain to be a hindrance. If you have a colleague who you just cannot see eye to eye with on a work issue, do your best to keep your emotions in control and take the time to try and understand what your colleague’s goals and motivations are. Do not be afraid to seek the guidance of a mentor who can act as a sounding board to ensure that you are not overreacting to the issue and provide guidance on how to proceed forward in interacting with this particular colleague.

Q. What does being an “expert” mean to you?

A. EC: Being an expert is a combination of having both a strong technical knowledge base and an ability to engage your colleagues and community. You need to be a source of accurate information and good ideas, but putting your thoughts into action requires working with your colleagues effectively.

A. ML: Being an expert to me means having a strong knowledge base in your area of research, education, etc. but also being able to contribute to conversations/collaborations with your colleagues and the community as a whole. To echo Eric’s above comment, you do need to be a source of accurate information and ideas, but effectively communicating your knowledge and ideas into action requires working with your colleagues.

Thank you both for a wonderful recap of this session. Now we are all ready to go out in the world and establish ourselves as experts!

Thanks to DuPont Nutrition & Health and PepsiCo for educational grants in support of this session.