American Society For Nutrition

Interview with Dr. Sara Oberhelman

Interview with Dr. Sara Oberhelman

Excellence in Nutrition Research and Practice
A Conversation With ASN Postdoctoral Research Award Finalist Sara Oberhelman, MD

For many ASN members, the Scientific Sessions & Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology is the professional highlight of their year. The meeting is a wonderful chance to hear the latest breaking research, meet with colleagues and friends from across the country and around the world, and form new professional connections that can continue throughout coming years.  

In light of these new connections we talked with Dr. Sara Oberhelman, who attended Experimental Biology for the first time, and was a presenter and a participant.  Dr. Oberhelman was a finalist for ASN's Postdoctoral Research Award, endowed by Solae LLC.  She is also a family doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. She spoke with us about her research as well as her unique perspective on the scientific sessions as a new member and first-time attendee.

Interviewer: Could you tell us a bit about the research for ASN's Postdoctoral Research Award Competition?

Dr. Oberhelman: I am one of six postdoctoral finalists who presented at this year's Experimental Biology meeting. I am a fairly new investigator, and I have been fortunate enough to work with a wonderful team of mentors. My research discusses vitamin D deficiencies in breast milk and how to prevent these deficiencies. Breast milk is phenomenal but is traditionally very low in vitamin D.  Part of that problem can be attributed to the fact that mothers are often low in vitamin D, and part of it is that, even in women getting enough themselves, there is not enough Vitamin D that passes into the breast milk. Formula, on the other hand, is actually fortified with vitamin D, meaning that most formula-fed babies do not have to be supplemented.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that all exclusively breast-fed infants be supplemented with vitamin D until six months of age, when we typically start introducing other foods.  However, this recommendation has been found to be problematic, both from a provider standpoint and a parent's standpoint.  There has been some research about orally supplementing mothers as an alternative, which is what our study did.  Mothers in our study took vitamin D supplements in either monthly or daily doses.  We measured their serum levels, their breast milk levels, and the infant's serum levels for vitamin D and other metabolites.  Our results were quite impressive in both dosing regimens.  It was a small study over a one-month period, but we achieved sufficiency in both groups, even though we expected one to be superior.  The pharmacokinetics, particularly in the beginning of the month, were slightly different, but overall results were very similar.  Our hope is with more study, this solution can become a viable option for both providers and parents to achieve vitamin D sufficiency in infants.

Interviewer: You were a first-time attendee at Experimental Biology this year. What is it that you found most exciting about the meeting?

Dr. Oberhelman: I met so many other individuals investigating other aspects of breastfeeding and really look forward to working with them in the future.  As there were so many different things going on, there are many more presentations outside of that area that I also found fascinating.  I think that's really the great attraction of EB: we have the opportunity to see the latest research and the greatest minds--not just in our own areas of interest, but also in many areas that can be helpful to our practice and our research.

I am a family physician. I see patients day in and day out with the health and economic problems of everyday life.  Only a portion of what I do is research.  But I think that is what makes it so exciting for practitioners like me to come to EB, because I see how these issues are real things affecting real people.  It is so wonderful for me to think that I can sit down with parents who are trying to do the best for their infants and say, “We as a medical community do not know the answer for sure, but I am involved in this research,” or “I just saw this research presented,” that may be onto something.  Medicine today is so different than it was 10 years ago, and it will be very different 10 years from now.  Being a part of organizations like ASN allows practitioners like me to stay on the cutting edge of those changes.  It makes me a better practitioner, and I think that my patients really appreciate the information, even if I can't offer definite answers.

Interviewer: When did you first get interested in nutrition, and what made you decide to pursue a career in the field?

Dr. Oberhelman:  Sixth grade: my science teacher was telling us about different types of food and how they impacted our bodies and our health.  I thought it was fascinating!  In terms of how nutrition became part of my professional life: I really enjoy the obstetrics and pediatrics portion of my practice, and nutrition is such an important part of taking care of both mothers and infants, through pregnancy, breastfeeding, and beyond.  The nutrition choices we make during those periods always affect at least two individuals.  One of my mentors, Dr. Tom Thacher, invited me to participate in this research in breastfeeding in my second year of residency, and I have continued to become more knowledgeable and more interested ever since.

Interviewer: How did you first find out about ASN? What motivated you to join the organization?

Dr. Oberhelman: Dr. Thacher has been involved in ASN for many years. He has been doing vitamin D-related research for many years as well. He is the one who suggested I submit my abstract for Experimental Biology and apply for membership. The conference is really my first opportunity to utilize my membership, and I see it as the start of an important new chapter in my career.  For example, one of my favorite parts of the annual meeting was the "speed mentoring" event.  I was able to meet other newer career individuals who, like myself, felt we were barely qualified to be mentors. Then we got started with the mentoring and discovered we all had something to share. I am in place where I am looking for more mentors experienced in the field for guidance, but I also feel as though I can be of some help to graduate students and undergraduates who are where I was only a few years ago.

Interviewer: What did you talk about with your college-age mentees?

Dr. Oberhelman: I really enjoyed hearing about the paths of the graduate and undergraduate students - they are already doing amazing work!  I also enjoyed getting to share with them my journey and offer them encouragement as they are establishing themselves.

Interviewer: Is there anything you'd like to tell members about your experience being a family doctor?

Dr. Oberhelman: Being a family doctor, we very much have our hands in every pot, and we have the privilege of working with experts in every field.  I know that I will be learning from the true experts every day of my life.  I am so excited to be doing that learning while also being on the front lines.  With breastfeeding, for example, you're talking about one action that affects two peoples' health, which is what makes me excited about our particular study.  New parents are so busy and tired, which means you have to be very careful about how you approach them.  It's so great to have this research where we can come to the parents and not just say, “Your breast milk isn't 'good enough' because it doesn't have sufficient vitamin D.”  Instead, we can be compassionate and acknowledge, “We live in Minnesota; nobody here gets enough vitamin D.  Here is something you can do to help your health as well as the health of your baby.”  Our hope is that this will be one of many studies that give vitamin D supplements credibility to help parents make those changes.

April 2012