Winter 2017

Prescription for Good Science

Former HNRCA director Simin Meydani, now Tufts’ vice provost for research, says collaboration seeds big breakthroughs.

By Julie Flaherty

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“In order to be able to make big strides and tackle key public health challenges, you need to bring different disciplines together,” said Simin Meydani. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Simin Nikbin Meydani, the new vice provost for research at Tufts, is known for her groundbreaking work on nutrition and the immune system. But her introduction to the field was something of a happy accident. Early in Meydani’s career, a cancer study she was slated to work on abruptly lost its funding. When she was deciding what to pursue next, she met with a professor who was beginning to research something relatively new.

“He started talking about these compounds called prostaglandins, which I had not heard of, so I ran from the meeting to the library to look them up. I found that they were actually very intriguing,” she said.

Although little was known about prostaglandins then, she signed on. These chemical messengers turned out to be essential for, among other things, modulating inflammation, a condition caused by an immune system in overdrive that is now known to bring on a range of health problems, from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease. Inflammation and its connection to nutrition and aging would figure prominently in Meydani’s work as director of the Nutritional Immunology Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts, and in her later work as director of the HNRCA itself, a role she assumed in 2009.

“Sometimes you’ve got to take some risk and get into new areas that might not be as established, but that might turn out to be very rewarding,” Meydani said.

She brings that trailblazing spirit to her new office, where she is an advocate for researchers, scholars and students across the university; promotes a culture of innovation and creativity; and identifies research areas where Tufts can have the greatest impact, all while ensuring researchers work in a safe environment and observe all regulatory requirements. She succeeded Diane Souvaine, a professor of computer science who is now a senior advisor to Provost David Harris and vice chair of the National Science Board.

Sarah Booth, associate director of the HNRCA, director of its Vitamin K Laboratory and a professor at the Friedman School, is serving as interim HNRCA director until Harris conducts a search to identify a permanent leader of the center, one of the largest in the world devoted to research on the relationship between healthy aging and nutrition and physical activity.

“It is great news for Tufts University that Simin Meydani has agreed to be our new vice provost for research,” Harris said. “She has a broad range of academic interests, deep experience at Tufts, and a drive that led the HNRCA to even greater heights under her leadership.

“She leaves big shoes to fill as the HNRCA director, but we are very fortunate that Sarah Booth is serving as interim director,” Harris said. “She has worked closely with Simin for many years, so I know the transition at the HNRCA will be a smooth one.”

Meydani, who will continue to lead the HNRCA immunology lab, is also a professor at the Friedman School and a professor of immunology at the School of Medicine. She has more than 300 publications to her name and has been the principal investigator or coinvestigator on research projects that have received more than $40 million in external funding. She is a former president of the American Society for Nutrition and of the American Aging Association, and received their highest awards in recognition of the importance of her research findings.

Meydani grew up in Iran, where she attended Tehran University and earned a doctor of veterinary medicine degree. The D.V.M. studies “enabled me to see the connection between the different species and not be focused on one way of thinking, to be able to see the commonalities and also the differences,” she said.

For her thesis, she traveled to remote areas of Iran to study parasites in gazelles and discovered three new parasite species. That got her hooked on research. “I liked the excitement of finding new things,” she says.

She and her husband, Mohsen Meydani, continued their studies in the United States, both earning doctorates in nutrition from Iowa State University. Mohsen Meydani, who directs the HNRCA’s Vascular Biology Laboratory, joined the center soon after it opened in 1982, and Simin Meydani followed in 1984.

She began researching the effects of nutrients on aging, immunity and infection. In studies that are considered seminal, her HNRCA lab was one of the first to conduct well-controlled trials that demonstrated how important nutrition is to a well-functioning immune system. The work often bridged the gap between bench science and clinical application. Studies on vitamin E, for example, started with examining how aging can damage cells, and eventually moved to animal studies and finally large clinical trials that showed vitamin E supplements can improve older people’s ability to fight off infection.

“It requires time, effort and support to make sure the ideas that are generated from the bottom up become successful initiatives.”

Meydani became director of the HNRCA at Tufts—one of six human nutrition research centers in the country funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—in the midst of the economic downturn. She quickly saw the need to create the center’s first strategic plan. Its cornerstones were to increase interdisciplinary collaboration, boost community and government outreach and visibility, develop strategic relationships with organizations such as AARP and the City of Boston, and diversify sources of funding. “It really helped us prioritize and make strategic investments,” she said.

One of those investments was funding pilot grants for budding research, with the goal of kick-starting studies that could then attract outside grants to advance discovery. In the last five years, the center has invested about $1 million in its own pilot grants, which led to about $8.5 million in external funding—a return that amazed even Meydani. “I expected it to be successful, but not this successful,” she said.

As vice provost for research, Meydani wants to continue fostering collaborative work by researchers across the university. “Working in silos will only get you so far,” she said. “In order to be able to make big strides and tackle key public health challenges, you need to bring different disciplines together.” That underpins a main tenet of Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco’s research agenda for the university—bring together the best minds in multiple fields to engage in science for social good.

From her experience creating cross-lab research clusters at the HNRCA—focused on cancer or cardiovascular disease, for example—she acknowledges that this is not an easy task. “Everyone says, ‘Yes, we’ll do it.’ But it requires time, effort and support to make sure the ideas that are generated from the bottom up become successful initiatives.”

As for the challenge of helping Tufts’ research enterprise grow in a difficult funding climate, she is unbowed. “I’m an optimist by nature,” she said. “I’m hoping that we’ve been through the worst of it.” Meanwhile, she aims to help Tufts increase the funding it receives from corporations and foundations, create synergies among different disciplines and become more creative in making strategic alliances with other nonprofit and for-profit institutions and organizations. “That will help Tufts become more competitive in seeking federal funding,” she said.

Julie Flaherty, the editor of this magazine, can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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