MEET THE TEAM

EVENTS

The Nutritional Sciences Graduate Students’ Association (NSGSA) aims to represent the Department of Nutritional Sciences (DNS) graduate students body by supporting and engaging students, both at the university and community level. These are some of the events that happened in the DNS this semester:

Welcome (Back) Pub Night DNSAA Mentorship Program Kickoff NSGSA ROM FNL
FOM Halloween Party NSGSA at The Royal DNSAA Mentorship Program Holiday Dinner
Gingerbread House Decorating DNS Holiday Party Holiday Outreach: Caroling
Skating at the Bentway

Keep posted for future events at the NSGSA website

CONFERENCES

Our department has been recognized internationally for his strong research program. These are some of the conferences that faculty and students attended representing the research that is being carried out:

CNS Annual Conference 16th ISBNPA Meeting 77th ADA Scientific Sessions 35th ISDN
IUNS 21st ICN 4th BBDC-Joslin-UCPH 35th ObesityWeek UPCOMING
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HEADLINING NUTRITION

By: Stephanie Nishi

The Headline. It is meant to provide the gist of the article that follows, capturing the reader’s attention to proceed further. Yet, have you ever come across a headline that made you look twice, not because of its catchy proses, but due to its content – the statement being made may have seemed overly dramatized or too good to be true?

[…] in the present era of “fake news,” it can often be difficult to discern what to believe, let alone ensure our words are taken in an appropriate context.

From traditional print media, such as newspapers and magazines, to social media platforms, including Twitter and Instagram, the use of media can be a valuable means of disseminating information. However, especially in the present era of “fake news,” it can often be difficult to discern what to believe, let alone ensure our words are taken in an appropriate context. Perhaps you have seen one or more nutrition-based articles publicizing sensationalized headlines, with findings potentially misrepresented or presenting information that is incongruent with the existing body of research. While the occurrence of such sensationalized headlines is not new news, it remains persistent in the news. Headlines appearing in 2017 include “Eating Fish Weekly Raises IQ by almost 5 points in Children, study finds” (1) which is starkly at odds with another article titled “Cautions about Fish Consumption” (2); in early August we were told about “The Destructive Cheesing of America,” (3) only to find out a few months later that “Eating Cheese Every Day May Actually Be Good for You.” (4) If those headlines have not addled the brain, consider the following two published within mere minutes of each other: “Pass the Butter: Cutting Saturated Fat Does Not Reduce Heart Disease Risk, Cardiologists say” (5) and “The Saturated Fat-Heart Disease Debate is Still Unsettled.” (6) The perplexity of the nutrition information landscape is self-evident in the above examples, without even delving into the potential disconnect between the headline and the scientific publication(s) from which it was inspired. So how do we untangle this web of captions to decipher what is attention-grabbing versus attention-worthy? A few key things to keep in mind when reading media communications are: 1) Does it seem too good to be true? 2) Who performed the study and who is providing the information? Do they have something to gain? and 3) Are there other studies that support this information?

Nutritional sciences researchers may not be as easily swayed by the titillating nutrition headlines vying for our attention, but a headline, and the subsequent article, can be impactful to the general public. It can be especially impactful if this garners distrust. In conducting research, one objective is to inform, but how do we broach the translation of results to journalists, and ultimately the public, in a way that is useful without unintentionally embellishing either the findings or their potential applications? Now, I don’t claim to have answers to these questions, this article is simply to continue the conversation and introduce the theme for the 2017 Winter Edition of NutriNews of “Headlining Nutrition.” As the Department of Nutritional Sciences’ news outlet the theme of “Headlining Nutrition” came out of discussions about the credibility of nutrition information presented to the public and our role as researchers to ensure the work we do is presented in an accurate and informative manner while still capturing readership. We welcome you to share your thoughts and ideas, and we hope you enjoy this issue! ●

Stephanie Nishi is a PhD student in the lab of Dr. John Sievenpiper & Dr. Richard Bazinet at the Department of Nutritional Sciences

FACULTY INTERVIEW:
Dr. Daniel Sellen &
the Lawson Centre

By: Jordan Mak

In January 2017, Prof. Daniel Sellen assumed the role of Director of the University of Toronto’s Joannah & Brian Lawson Centre for Child Nutrition. NutriNews sat down with Dr. Sellen to learn more about his past, priorities and vision for the Lawson Centre.

Dr. Sellen comes to the Lawson Centre from a unique background, beginning with his studies in zoology and biological anthropology at Oxford University. Throughout his master’s in anthropology at the University of Michigan and PhD in theoretical ecology and international nutrition at UC Davis, he was exposed to studies in nutrition through the realization that many concepts in ecosystems and life history theory are applicable to human behaviour. He now uses concepts from human ecology, evolutionary biology and medical anthropology to improve child feeding practices, noting that humans are always developing new solutions — and new threats — to ancient, evolved health needs. Nowhere is this more evident than in the challenges of child nutrition. “Achieving and protecting good nutrition for all children now and in the future is a systems challenge,” says Dr. Sellen. “Metabolic, developmental, inter-generational, historical, social, political, economic, agro-ecological and medical systems and processes all play a role in eroding or creating lifelong health and equity through family, maternal and child nutrition.”

“Achieving and protecting good nutrition for all children now and in the future is a systems challenge”

The Lawson Centre is a network of researchers and academics from the Departments of Nutritional Sciences, Family & Community Medicine and Paediatrics, working to improve the nutrition of children globally. Dr. Sellen’s vision for the Centre includes building strong relations with the public to socialize nutrition research. In a time when people are fatigued with nutrition messaging, he believes trust in research is starting to erode and that we need authentic voices to ensure good messaging on nutrition. “We also are focusing on the family and community practitioner, informal and formal child caregiver, and general public communities by engaging patients and child caregivers more effectively through ‘how-to’ child nutrition knowledge useful in everyday contexts,” he says. For example, an educational blitz in the last year featured a series of videos by the Centre’s distinguished faculty, posted on the Lawson YouTube channel. The Centre’s website also highlights instances where its scientists have appeared in media stories, helping to build the Centre’s reputation for clear, trusted communication and showcasing researchers as innovative, credible voices in the ever-changing nutrition landscape. In line with the priority of knowledge translation, Lawson Centre faculty member Dr. John Sievenpiper has led the development of stronger nutrition training for U of T medical students. “This is a key area of activity where translation of best knowledge to future physicians will help close historical gaps in the medical curriculum,” says Dr. Sellen.

Several labs in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and others in the Faculty of Medicine have been recognised for their innovative work in child nutrition through competitive funding from the Lawson Centre. A recent report on Canadian research commissioned by the Minister of Science described declining Canadian research competitiveness in comparison with international peers. Dr. Sellen cited U of T’s ability to attract talent and its stellar reputation for research excellence as keys to protecting and growing funding for the Lawson Centre’s important research. “Our potential for positive impact on child nutrition is very high because the Faculty of Medicine trains many practitioners as the largest and leading faculty in Canada,” he says. Dr. Sellen hopes the consensus he’s heard behind the federal report will be a catalyst to boost the flat-lining of federal spending. During his previous role as Associate Dean of Research at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, external funding grew, enhancing the school’s capacity to conduct public health research. He anticipates the Lawson Centre will play a key role in attracting funding for critical research that will shape the future of child nutrition in Canada and around the world.

To learn more about the Joannah & Brian Lawson Centre for Child Nutrition visit childnutrition.utoronto.ca

Jordan Mak is a MSc student in the lab of Professor Valerie Tarasuk at the Department of Nutritional Sciences / Photo courtesy of the Lawson Centre

EDNA PARK LECTURE: Telling the Story of Food Sustainability

By: Patrick Merrithew

Reading articles regarding climate change and our future as humans on earth has become trying this past year. After many referring to 2016 as a particularly onerous year, 2017 was, in many ways, and as in movies, the disappointing follow-up sequel that strongly resembled the original and so failed to impress (even while it made more money). These are topics that many people in the nutritional sciences area are able to keep at arm’s reach, since our day-to-day doesn’t typically involve the challenges of climate change and feeding the nine billion people expected in the coming years, and we only need to think about these issues in a broader context.

So, one could be forgiven for thinking that an evening about food sustainability with an expert in global food security and agriculture might be mired in sighs and uncertainty of a happy future. However, we were happily disappointed.  For the 2017 Edna Park event, Dr. Evan Fraser, was invited to be the keynote speaking presenting on, “When too much isn’t enough: the intersection between food systems, sustainability and health”.

Dr. Evan Fraser is from the University of Guelph, the Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security, and creator of the Feeding Nine Billion project. The Edna Park Lecture event began with the presentation of awards to undergraduate and graduate students in the DNS, where students’ notable work from the previous year was acknowledged. Congratulations! to our peers reading this article. Dr. Fraser then engaged the attendees with his presentation and discussion on factors involved in the sustainability of food systems.  The event concluded with a reception where discussions about food sustainability was engaged among the attendees which included, current undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, and faculty. Prior to the lecture, graduate students from the DNS had the opportunity to personally address Dr. Fraser in a meet and greet round table discussion.

“I love beef steaks and ice cream and we are going to need to eat these things less often than we do right now”

After a short introduction, Dr. Fraser opened the table by expressing the necessary evils of raw broccoli as a snack and nodding to the skilled animator behind the popular series of YouTube videos “Feeding Nine Billion”, Scott Mooney; stating then his desire to hold an easy, informal, open discussion. We then began with the well-known personal introductions and could tell Dr. Fraser was really listening, asking insightful questions regarding our research and complimenting us as “real scientists”.

Therefore, us real scientists, we wanted to know what Dr. Fraser could tell us about the pros and cons of his work: doing research that ties together so many disciplines, some scientific and some less so, and working with so many people, some scientists and some not. He started by saying that at the beginning of his career there was much less attention on the pros of interdisciplinary research and what we now call knowledge translation. We could imagine the level of difficulty that encompassed tying the learning from an arts degree in Anthropology to what was needed to know for an MSc in Forestry and a PhD in Resource Management and Environmental Studies, so ultimately, Dr. Fraser learned to become a good story teller. Without a compelling narrative and a good analogy or metaphor to relate to, it can be difficult to tie the material from one field with another in a compelling manner.

The talk then gave a turn with the inevitable question of the environmental costs of animal products. CO2 emissions and cricket flour were discussed, bringing attention to the high nutritional value and tasty flavour that bugs can provide. Still, Dr. Fraser ensured we clearly understood his particular position: he does not, and will not advocate for any diet in particular, making “and” instead of “but” statements, as in “I love beef steaks and ice cream and we are going to need to eat these things less often than we do right now”.

According to Dr. Fraser’s research, animal agriculture is a vital component of a robust farming system that can produce enough food to feed the world, and people in the Western world eat far too many of these animals and their products to be sustainable. “The future is less, better quality meat.” Despite trends showing increased (though in some cases plateauing) animal product consumption, Dr. Fraser remains optimistic. He gave the example of the introduction of sushi in the United States and Canada in the 1980s: what at first was an alien trend (try to find the McSooshi ads from 80s Saturday Night Live for cultural confirmation) then became an usual part of our diet 20-30 years later. Who knows, maybe we’ll say the same for crickets. ●

Patrick Merrithew is a MSc student in the lab of Dr. Brian McCrindle at the Department of Nutritional Sciences / Photos courtesy of Patrick Merrithew and Stephanie Nishi / Illustration from Dr. Fraser YouTube channel

STUDENT CORNER:
An interview of some of this year’s graduates and new students

By: Ingrid Santaren

Are you pondering about applying to the Nutritional Sciences graduate program? This article may help you, the prospective student, gain insight into the program through the voices of new students and recent alumni. We asked five students in our department about their experiences in the department and life as a graduate student.

New MSc student, Shahen Yashpal, graduated last year from U of T with a double major in Nutritional Sciences and Health & Disease and a minor in Spanish and joined this past September the Hanley Lab to research on “Metabolomic Profiling of the DASH Diet: Novel insights for the Nutritional Epidemiology of Type 2 Diabetes.” Mandana Esmaili did her bachelor in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Akron (USA) and started her graduate program in the Comelli Lab to look into the effects of probiotic administration during pregnancy and lactation in mice.

1. Why did you choose the Deparment of Nutritional Sciences (DNS) to pursue your graduate studies?

Shahen: “The DNS has a very close-knit community with students conducting very different types of research in nutritional sciences. Within the department, we get to interact with students with distinct expertise such as public health, statistics or clinical research.”

Mandana: “I actually applied to different departments but I had a great impression from DNS compared to others. In addition to the reputation of the Nutritional Sciences research, the people in the DNS are very friendly, easy to approach, and willing to help you in any way possible.”

“Hearing what a day in the life of a graduate student is and learning about the expectations of graduate school helped me craft my application and realize the type of research I wished to pursue.”

2. What resources did you find useful during the application process?

Shahen: “The most useful experience of all when applying is interacting with current graduate students. Hearing what a day in the life of a graduate student is and learning about the expectations of graduate school helped me craft my application and realize the type of research I wished to pursue.”

Mandana: “I started my application by reading about the application process on the website, however, if I had any question I could easily contact Louisa Kung, the Graduate Program Administrator at DNS. She knows everything, literally everything, in this department and I think she is the best resource if one can’t find their answers through the website.”

3. What are you most looking forward to about being in this program?

Shahen: “First of all, being able to focus on what interests you most is a huge advantage of graduate school. For my thesis, not only do I get to work in-depth on the etiology of type 2 diabetes and components of the DASH diet but I am also learning computer coding and complex statistical methods. Secondly, the DNS has extremely knowledgeable and friendly faculty members. It is a privilege to discuss and hear their take on current trends in nutrition. The entire faculty is extremely supportive of its graduate students and is always available for advice when needed. Not only are they available for academic help but they also can become great mentors in career planning.”

Mandana: “The department is quite strong in regard to science and with courses, students can tailor their studies to their future goal, which can prepare them for either industry or academics. For me, it’s important to have that option. Moreover, U of T and the School of Graduate Studies provide additional resources to gain required soft skills for career goals.”

4. What would you say/recommend to potential new students applying in the new year?

Shahen: “It is essential to find a supervisor who is in the research area you are truly interested in, as you will be working everyday on similar topics. It is also a good idea to make sure you get along with your supervisor as this will make your working conditions all the more comfortable. It may be a good idea to volunteer under a supervisor for a short period of time before joining his or her lab as a graduate student.”

Mandana: “I would recommend that they follow the process on the website but contact the professors way ahead of time to know about the funding conditions and the requirements of each professor.”


Anne Fard holds a double major in Nutritional Sciences and Human Biology with focus on Health and Disease and minor in Jewish Studies. She was last year’s editor of NutriNews and graduated from her MSc on December 2017. She now plans on going surfing and taking some time to reflect and assess what is ahead, leaning towards working in the field of health care management. Mavra Ahmed and Luke Johnston graduated from the PhD program this past November. Before entering the PhD program, Mavra majored in nutritional sciences and human biology, and minored in French during her bachelors at U of T, and completed an MSc in nutritional sciences at in the DNS and St. Michael’s Hospital. She also completed a collaborative program in public health policy during her PhD. She is currently a Mitacs Elevate Postdoctoral Fellow. Her research focuses on the evaluation of various nutrient profiling tools in relation to portion sizes to inform public health policy in Canada. This project is being conducted in collaboration with the industry partner – Nestle Research Centre, Lausanne. Luke graduated with a kinesiology degree from the University of Waterloo, and an MSc in nutritional sciences in the DNS. He will be starting a post-doctoral position in Aarhus University this winter. His project will be to develop a framework and open source software that can dynamically construct causal models and integrate them across diverse datasets. Once developed he plans on using this framework to study the relationship between early life conditions, metabolic capacity, and risk for cardiometabolic disease through the use of multiple cohorts and in distinct national populations, and integrate the models into a single causal model. The hope is that this open source framework will allow other researchers to easily make use of this method to continuously contribute to developing a single causal model of epidemiological research questions for chronic diseases.

“[…] the more interesting (for me) ‘product’ of my PhD was the software toolkits I developed in order to effectively analyze and visualize my results.”

1. Tell us about your dissertation and what was a surprising finding?

Anne: “My Master’s thesis looked at the epigenetic mechanisms by which maternal status of low vitamin B12 and high folate status during pregnancy can influence offspring intrauterine growth and development. I was most surprised by the involvement of vitamin B12, and its importance in combination with high folate, in driving changes in DNA methylation, gene expression and in infant birth weight.”

Mavra: “One of the main findings of my PhD dissertation was the insufficient energy intake in relation to measured energy expenditures of Canadian Armed Forces personnel under harsh environmental temperatures/demanding physical activities even with ample time to eat and food prepared on request.”

Luke: “My PhD research was studying the contribution that serum fatty acids have on the pathogenesis of diabetes, using data from a longitudinal cohort of individuals at risk for diabetes. There were a few interesting findings directly related to my research, such as which molecule the fatty acid is bound to changes its influence on features of diabetes. However, the more interesting (for me) ‘product’ of my PhD was the software toolkits I developed in order to effectively analyze and visualize my results. These toolkits, publicly accessible and freely online, sped up the analysis of my own work but also sped up my labmates research as well.”

2. What are some valuable lessons you learned through all the years in the graduate program?

“When I faced tough situations, both [perseverance and perspective] helped me get through them. Perseverance came when I decided to press forward despite the obstacles, while perspective made the journey happier.”

Anne: “There were many things I learned, but to highlight only two, I would say perseverance and perspective. When I faced tough situations, both helped me get through them. Perseverance came when I decided to press forward despite the obstacles, while perspective made the journey happier. A perspective that solely focused on the end-goal seemed to dim and remove the joys of the present. Having a perspective of the ‘now’ allowed me to enjoy the wonderful company, good things and small wins, as I journeyed to completing my Master’s program.”

Mavra: “I learned that coffee is my buddy but in all seriousness, I learned to try and do any thing at least once, even if it sounded impossible or made me feel uncomfortable. It also taught me to value my family and friends for support.”

Luke: “Through both my Master’s and PhD, I learned how powerful combining programming and statistics can be… And how badly we as graduate students and researchers need training on knowing how to do coding and statistics better. There is scarcity of courses and workshops aimed at teaching practical analytic skills to researchers at the University of Toronto, and in universities around the globe! I also learned how important it is to find likeminded, competent, and enthusiastic peers, not just to develop a network, but to learn from them too. I was lucky in finding a group of students who are passionate about teaching coding, and we’ve been working together for more than 2 years in our UofTCoders group!”

3. Any words of advice to prospective students who want to join the DNS?

Anne: “Before pursuing an MSc, it may be wise to reflect on yourself- the way you are and the way you do things. An MSc in our department involves complex topics, a lot of reading, writing, and independent learning and experimentation. Our research doesn’t always involve food, which comes as a surprise to many! Lastly, research can often be solitary and even chaotic at times. It takes a certain type of person and character for one to be able to not only survive the challenges, but get the most out of the journey and finish with a positive experience.”

“So you want to do a PhD? Better learn to have an affair first…with your research”

Mavra: “So you want to do a PhD? Better learn to have an affair first…with your research: Be passionate about your dissertation topic, exercise control and focus during challenges, do your research for the thrill but most importantly, regret not a single fail.”

Luke: “Learn to program. Learn how data works and how to structure it to effectively to analyze your data… *before* you start collecting data! Learn to teach, about the science of learning so you can teach better, since you will almost certainly need to do some type of training/teaching in your career. The better you know how to teach, the easier it is for you and the trainee!”

Starting a postgraduate degree is no light decision, it requires careful deliberation on your motivations, research interests, and possible career paths. We hope this article helps you answer some of the questions you may have about graduate life in the department, and provides sound advice into the next step of your academic life. More information about the application process can be found on the DNS website (nutrisci.med.utoronto.ca) ●

Ingrid Santaren is a PhD student in the lab of Professor Antony Hanley at the Department of Nutritional Sciences