Winter 2019

Top Docs

Nine nutrition experts who are doing big things with their Ph.D.s.

By Julie Flaherty

What can you do with a Ph.D.? Some pretty amazing things, from running a lab to heading an international hunger-relief program. These nine rising stars—some with Tufts doctorates, some with roles at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts, some with both—are making their mark as scientists, teachers, and leaders in their fields. And don’t just take our word for it: The National Institutes of Health awarded career-development grants to all four of the HNRCA scientists here, a testament to their promise as nutrition researchers.


The Global Influencer

Karin Lapping, NG12

Her Job: Project director for Alive & Thrive, which works in Asian and African countries to improve nutrition for mothers and young children.

Her Work: After fourteen years with Save the Children, four of them as senior director of nutrition, Lapping knows the importance of good nutrition early in life—in particular, supporting mothers in breastfeeding their infants exclusively for the first six months, before offering other nutritious foods, could save more than eight hundred thousand children’s lives a year worldwide. Now at the nonprofit FHI 360, she works to make that change happen: advocating to extend maternity leave, strengthening and enforcing rules on the marketing of breast-milk substitutes, and supporting national capacity-development efforts. “When we are tasked with trying to move the needle in countries like India, which has the largest number of malnourished children in the world, we are not looking to do things that are small scale,” Lapping said. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other donors, Lapping’s project over the last five years increased exclusive breastfeeding rates from 72 to 82 percent in Ethiopia, 17 to 57 percent in Vietnam, and 50 to 90 percent in Bangladesh.

Worth the Time: Lapping spent about a decade on her Ph.D., all the while working fulltime for an NGO. “Tufts was really, really patient with me.”


The Kids’ Health Watchdog

Sarah Sliwa, A04, N09, NG14

Her Job: A health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where she leads work on school-based approaches to preventing childhood obesity.

Her Work: The CDC doesn’t take a stand on whether schools should check students’ Body Mass Indexes (BMI), but it does provide guidelines. Yet according to a study led by Sliwa, only about half of schools that screen have the right equipment for measuring height and weight. “It may not seem like a big deal,” she said, “but because height measurements are squared when calculating BMI, there’s the potential to magnify measurement error. If schools choose to take this on, it’s important that the information they share is accurate.” Her research has also shown that rural elementary schools are less likely than their urban counterparts to have before- or after-school nutrition programs on school grounds. That’s a problem that needs solving, because such programs often provide children with healthy meals or snacks. “We know that child poverty and food insecurity are higher in rural areas.”

How Her Tufts Ph.D. Helped Her: “I had undervalued how much I’d gained in soft skills,” she said. “Facilitating discussions. Tailoring presentations to different audiences. Knowing how to work alone as well as within a team. I rely on those skills almost daily.”


The Gut-Muscle Connector

Michael Lustgarten

His Job: Scientist in the HNRCA’s Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory, where he focuses on the microbiome’s role in muscle change as we age.

His Work: By analyzing the metabolome, the collection of chemicals that circulate in the blood, Lustgarten identified several gut-bacteria-related metabolites that were associated with muscle mass and physical function in both young and older adults. He thinks his research may point to a connection between gut bacteria and muscle decline as people age. In one of his current studies, Lustgarten is investigating the potential connections between a high-fiber diet, the gut microbiome, and muscle mass and physical function, with a goal of improving wellness. In future studies, he hopes to expand these findings by studying the role of the gut and kidney on muscle mass and physical function in older adults.

His Own Fight Against Aging: In addition to exercising vigorously, Lustgarten journals everything he eats and tests his blood regularly, to see how his diet affects his biomarkers of aging. Although he is forty-five, his biomarkers put him at fifteen to twenty years younger. “I’m not shy in saying I want to live longer than anyone who has ever lived,” he said. “I want to get every drop of juice out of the orange that is my life span.”


The Community Engager

Sabrina Noel, NG09

Her Job: Assistant professor at the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where she engages communities as equal partners in her research studies.

Her Work: While at Tufts, Noel worked with epidemiologist Katherine Tucker on the Boston Puerto Rican Health Study. “I was there for the first interview,” she said. Fifteen years later, the study is now based at UMass Lowell, and among other things has revealed that Puerto Rican adults on the mainland U.S. have a surprisingly high prevalence of osteoporosis. Noel followed up on that finding, and five years ago set out to look at bone health and diet in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a predominantly Latino community. From the beginning, she worked closely with the community. “We sat down at the table and we wrote the grant together,” she said, “which includes a pilot dietary intervention for bone health.”

Up Next: With a grant from the Tufts Health Plan Foundation, Noel will be a partner with the community again, gathering feedback from more than eight thousand Lawrence residents about healthy living, social services, greens spaces, housing, and transportation. The results of her research will inform an Age-Friendly City Initiative. “We’re in a partnership toward improving health in the city,” she said.


The Vitamin K Investigator

Kyla Shea, NG07

Her Job: Scientist in the HNRCA’s Vitamin K and Bone Metabolism labs, focused on the vitamin’s role in preventing age-related diseases, including cardiovascular disease and osteoarthritis.

Her Work: In cardiovascular disease, calcium can be deposited in blood vessel walls. In osteoarthritis, it can find its way into cartilage. “Those are two places where you don’t want calcification,” Shea said. In those tissues, certain proteins that depend on vitamin K help minimize calcification. Shea is analyzing the vitamin K levels of 3,400 people with kidney disease, who have mineral imbalances that predispose them to arterial calcification and cardiovascular disease. She is also looking at how vitamin K could be involved in osteoarthritis. The end goal is to see whether eating vitamin K-rich foods could help preserve joint health as we age. “We may be able to slow the development of a disease that we currently don’t have a treatment for,” she said.

What Led Her To a Ph.D.: Shea worked in corporate wellness, before taking a job as research coordinator for a project at Tufts studying an after-school program to improve bone health in children. Realizing that research was her passion, she earned her Ph.D. in 2007 and joined the HNRCA in 2013.


The Nano Pioneer

Shu Wang, NG08

Her Job: Associate professor of nutritional sciences at Texas Tech University, where she is a pioneer in nutrition and nanomedicine.

Her Work: Scientists believe phytochemicals found in plants are responsible for many of the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. But some phytochemicals are unstable, hard to absorb, or get dispersed throughout the body. Wang, who is also an M.D., had the idea to use nanocarriers—such as empty, cell-like containers that are roughly 1/100th the diameter of a human hair—to send phytochemicals directly to the cells that need them most. In one project, she encapsulated resveratrol, an anti-inflammatory substance found in grapes. In another, she developed a way to deliver minuscule amounts of dye to macrophages—a type of white blood cell that turns up in arterial plaque—so they can be visible on MRIs and C.T. scans. It could lead to early detection of cardiovascular disease.

How Her Tufts Ph.D. Helped Her: Just three years into her first faculty position, she received funding from the NIH—an incredible feat for a new scientist. “I learned how to identify research questions, search the literature, write research proposals,” she said. “I try to train my Ph.D. students the same way.”


The Food Studies Professor

Jamie Picardy, NG15

Her Job: Assistant professor at the University of Southern Maine, where she is developing the university’s nascent Food Studies program.

Her Work: Studying at a university in the food capital of Portland, Maine, judged the 2018 restaurant city of the year by Bon Appetit magazine, Picardy’s students might end up working in an incubator kitchen, a winery, a farmland conservation nonprofit, or a government food-assistance program. To prepare them, she’s helped create a series of courses that are just as diverse, including Food and the Environment; Food Policy and Planning; and Food, Power, and Social Justice. Her students have researched everything from food waste at a specialty food market, to how a local brewery successfully scaled up, to how college students feel about seafood—a finding that prompted the university dining halls to start offering local seafood three times per week.

Casting a Wide Net for Sustainability: “Sometimes when we look at a more sustainable food system, we automatically go to the local, organic,” she said. “But there are many different types of producer and many different types of consumer, and we shouldn’t exclude folks from the table.”


The Nutrigenomicist

Caren Smith, V07

Her Job: Scientist in the HNRCA’s Nutrition and Genomics Laboratory, studying how people’s responses to food vary according to their individual genotypes.

Her Work: Smith has recently been focused on individual responses to dairy. “Dairy foods are really interesting—genetically—because the lifelong ability to digest lactose is determined by one gene,” she said. “But we suspect that the evolutionary pressures that selected for lactose tolerance probably affected other parts of the genome.” In a 2018 meta-analysis, she looked at the diets, complete genomes, and body weights of about twenty-five thousand people, and found that consuming more dairy did seem to protect people with certain genotypes from excess weight. She believes the future of nutrition will depend on insights from this kind of genetic work. “What’s optimal for one person may not be optimal for someone else,” she said.

Degrees Make a Difference: Smith has four master’s degrees, including one in comparative biomedical sciences from Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts, where she also earned her doctorate in veterinary medicine. Her goal was to become a veterinarian, but she spent all her free time doing research, which led her to the HNRCA. She credits her cross-species perspective with helping her see connections in the science that others may not.


The Cell Decoder

Donato Rivas

His Job: Scientist in the HNRCA’s Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory, where he studies microRNA and muscle metabolism.

His Work: Building on previous work, Rivas found that older adults make much less microRNA—RNA molecules that have the power to turn on and off other, protein-encoding RNA—in their skeletal muscle than younger people. Even after older test subjects in his study did a bout of high-intensity exercise, which would normally spur muscle cell growth, their microRNA didn’t turn on. This finding has important repercussions for cell homeostasis. Rivas hopes future studies could look at whether repeated exercise, carbohydrates, fish oil, or amino acids could turn on the microRNA in older adults.

From Combat to Lab: After high school, Rivas joined the U.S. Army as a combat medic and paratrooper. During combat and airborne operations, he frequently treated sportslike and other musculoskeletal injuries as well as serious medical emergencies. Since then, understanding how muscle adapts to aging, chronic diseases, and exercise has been an ongoing theme in his research.

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