Summer 2018

There From the Start

Combined, these three Friedman School professors have given more than a century of service to Tufts and to science.

By Julie Flaherty

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HNRCA scientists Jeffrey Blumberg, Jacob Selhub, and Mohsen Meydani were named emeritus professors at the commencement ceremony in May. Photo: Alonso Nichols

The USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) building was still under construction when Jeffrey Blumberg was recruited in 1981. Mohsen Meydani and Jacob Selhub waited for the paint to dry, arriving in 1983 and 1987, respectively. Although retiring from their labs this year, these HNRCA stalwarts, who were named Friedman School emeritus professors in May, continue to inspire discovery and collegiality.

Jeffrey Blumberg

As founding assistant director—later to become associate director—Blumberg helped develop the HNRCA’s first programs and hire the first scientists. “Jeff was a superb colleague in this endeavor: practical, humorful, warm, and energetic,” said former HNRCA director Robert Russell. “The center soon established a national presence, and Jeff played a very key role in this.”

Blumberg recalls the excitement of creating something wholly new. “We all felt like pioneers,” he said. “It was a very giddy time.”

As director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory, Blumberg investigated the role dietary antioxidants play in preventing damage to cells from oxidative stress and inflammation. More recently, he has focused on elucidating the health benefits of bioactive compounds called polyphenols. “People now talk about red wine and dark chocolate and green tea as healthful—our work contributed to that discussion,” he said.

When Joel Mason, now director of the Vitamins and Carcinogenesis Lab, came to the HNRCA as a postdoctoral fellow, Blumberg was very supportive. “He was one of those senior investigators who was always receptive to helping young emerging investigators such as myself navigate the turbulent waters of biomedical research, and he did so with a very supportive and encouraging tone,” Mason said.

That is exactly what Blumberg hopes to spend more time doing as an emeritus professor—mentoring postdocs and junior faculty. He has learned a few things about how Tufts operates and how to make choices for work/life balance. That, he said, is “something that I would like to share.”

Mohsen Meydani

Meydani has explored the health benefits of vitamin E, oats, turmeric, green tea, mushrooms, and many foods we eat every day. While it has been gratifying to show how what we eat can change our risk for disease, he said, the most exciting part has been discovering how benefits work on the molecular level, seeing how compounds modulate microprocesses that affect cells.

As the director of the Vascular Biology Laboratory, Meydani has focused on the role foods play in the formation of blood vessels and the development of cardiovascular disease. Once called “the oat expert” by The New York Times, Meydani discovered that oats do more than lower cholesterol. A component of oats called avenanthramide counteracts the buildup of plaque leading to atherosclerosis in two ways: by inhibiting the proliferation of smooth muscles in the linings of blood vessels, and suppressing the adhesive molecules that glue blood cells to artery walls. Meydani also gave us insight into curcumin—a bioactive compound in turmeric that he found increased fat burning in mice. A human study on curcumin is due to finish this summer.

According to his Associate Professor Dayong Wu, Meydani has a delicate touch with both science and art. “If you see the oil paintings in his house and learn that they were from his hands,” Wu said, “you won’t be surprised when I tell you that we often count on him for the most delicate, microscopic tissue dissection work.”

Wu added: “His dedication to research and teaching, combined with multiple talents, makes him a successful scientist and educator.”

Jacob Selhub

Aron Troen chose to do his postdoc in Selhub’s Vitamin Metabolism Lab in large part because of its bulletin board. Instead of the usual, self-promoting display of publications, it was covered in photos of the whole lab group’s outings. Troen took it as “an expression of the pride and pleasure Jacob took in his lively lab and students” and the promise that “good science and hard work might be fostered by comraderie.” He took the job, and wasn’t disappointed, finding that some of the best scientific insights were gleaned in wide-ranging conversations away from the lab, whether at a conference or in Selhub’s kitchen. “This style of mentorship yielded not only new ideas and collaborations,” Troen said, “but also long-lasting friendships between many of his students and colleagues.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Selhub calls his students the most important thing in his career. “I just had a philosophy that students come first,” he said. “I succeeded and I always felt that I need to see my pupils do the same.”

Selhub’s research runs the gamut from the relation of B-vitamins and homocysteine to dementia and stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and kidney disease, osteoporosis, neural tube defects, immunology, epigenetics, nutrigenetics, and public health. Troen said that Selhub put a premium on getting the research done right, and helped him withstand the pressure to publish quickly. “When results were unexpected, contradicting our prediction and the prevailing wisdom, he reassured that ‘the data are the data’ and we’d all have to reevaluate what we thought we knew.”

Selhub said it has always been the intellectual aspect of the research that satisfied him. “Nothing else. I was not always looking to further my career; I just want to make sure I do good research, to create new concepts that can be proven,” he said.

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