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Member Highlight Interview: Kevin Klatt, Ph.D. Candidate in Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University

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.

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

Dr. Patrick Stover Reflects on Career Successes and Challenges

Student Blogger

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.