The American Society for Nutrition (ASN) is excited to welcome the E.V. McCollum lecturer for the International Union of Nutritional Sciences' (IUNS) 2013 International Congresses of Nutrition (ICN): Lindsay Allen, PhD, RD. The ICN is an international meeting of unprecedented scale arranged by the IUNS, bringing together nutrition experts from around the globe once every four years. The 2013 ICN will be held in Granada, Spain, Sept. 15- 20.
Dr. Allen is the Director of the USDA ARS Western Human Nutrition Research Center (WHNRC) and has served as vice president of the IUNS since 2009. In addition to her keynote address, Dr. Allen will be participating in on-site sessions and satellite symposia in Granada. The full schedule for the meeting can be found on the ICN 2013 site.
ASN presents the McCollum lectureship award to a practicing clinical investigator currently involved in a major project designed to advance new concepts in nutrition research. The lectureship, which includes a one-time honorarium of $1,500 for lectures plus travel costs up to $5,000, is presented in honor of the life and work of Dr. E.V. McCollum. ASN is accepting nominations for the 2014-2015 lectureship until Sept. 15. More information on how to apply for this and other awards can be found on the ASN website. In this interview, Dr. Allen discusses her work with ASN and at the WHNRC as well as her upcoming McCollum keynote address.
Interviewer: How did you first become involved in nutrition? What made you decide to pursue a career in the field?
Dr. Allen: I wanted a career that enabled me to apply scientific research to solve immediate, real-life problems. I started my career in England, where I chose to study Agriculture and Food Science because the degree provided in-depth knowledge of the plant, animal, and food sciences which seemed more useful to me than narrower scientific disciplines.
My real focus on nutrition started when I worked as a research assistant for Dr. Elsie Widdowson at the Dunn Nutritional Laboratory in Cambridge. I became involved with international nutrition much later when I had the opportunity to run a large project in rural Mexico. International nutrition is a terrifically exciting and rewarding field, giving us the opportunity to learn from and about people from developed, developing, and undeveloped nations alike.
Interviewer: When and why did you join ASN, and how has membership been most helpful to your professional development?
Dr. Allen: I joined in the early 1970s. I cannot imagine life without my “ASN family.” ASN provides a forum for scientific information and collaboration, and the ability to keep in touch with former students, colleagues, and friends made over the years. I was fortunate to serve as an Associate Editor of The Journal of Nutrition, as President of ASN, and as the first President of what is now the Global Nutrition Council. These were all important learning experiences. ASN also presented me with several awards, which enable me to feel proud of my career and that my efforts have been appreciated.
Interviewer: Can you give us a bit of background about your work with the WHNRC?
Dr. Allen: I am the Center Director, which means that I am involved in most of the administration, and in oversight of the research. WHNRC research can be broadly categorized as focusing on obesity and metabolism, immune function and inflammation, and vitamin and mineral interventions. For the next few years, we will be expanding our research on nutritional phenotyping using a systems biology approach and our expertise in “omic” platforms. We will apply these methods to test the benefits of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, for example, which is a very complex undertaking. I am privileged to work with an excellent team of scientists in an outstanding facility.
Interviewer: Would you tell us about your current research into micronutrient deficiencies?
Dr. Allen: I have done research on most of the more important micronutrients – assessment, many types of interventions, and evaluation of the metabolic and functional consequences of deficiency and repletion. My main research currently is on the functional consequences of vitamin B12 deficiency. I became very interested in B12 because I found such high prevalence of deficiency in populations with a low intake of animal source foods. My lab is currently applying metabolomic analyses to better understand the overall metabolic and physiological effects of B12 interventions in depleted populations. We are also using mass spectrometry to determine the micronutrient composition of breast milk from women around the world and the effects of different interventions on milk, and maternal and infant status.
Interviewer: What should ASN members who are attending the upcoming International Congress expect?
Dr. Allen: The Congresses provides an incredibly wide array of presentations, from very basic science to complex applications of scientific knowledge, as well as extensive discussions of international health policy. The different symposia and sessions will address the whole spectrum of nutrition science, including clinical nutrition. While it's difficult to cover such a wide selection of topics, this Congress offers the unique opportunity to hear from nutrition experts from all over the world, providing a much more global perspective on nutrition research. It also gives the attendees opportunities to network with other scientists, clinicians, and policymakers to form research collaborations on an international scale.
Interviewer: Tell us about your upcoming keynote address “Micronutrient Research, Programs and Policy: From Meta-analyses to Metabolomics?”
Dr. Allen: In the last few decades, there has been a tremendous focus on prevention and treatment of micronutrient deficiencies in developing countries. It has developed into a global movement supported by governments, NGOs, and bilateral and multinational organizations. There is no doubt that micronutrient interventions save lives, reduce morbidity, and improve child development. However, there are still many gaps in our knowledge, some of which might be better answered using the kind of analytical tools used in modern human nutrition science. For example, although many interventions have reduction of child growth stunting as their main goal this is extremely difficult to achieve, for reasons which are only partially understood. I am proposing that we focus more on documenting how interventions affect metabolism and physiology; international nutrition research needs to use more modern research paradigms and tools and provides an excellent opportunity to understand better how our nutritional phenotype is affected by nutrient deficiencies.
Interviewer: How do you see the study of micronutrient deficiencies progressing over the next several years? What advances and/or challenges do you expect to impact that progress?
Dr. Allen: The application of systems biology approaches to study micronutrient deficiencies is increasing rapidly. They will be used to better understand problems such as why preventing growth failure is so difficult, what causes low birth weight, and which interventions improve immune function, for example. The roles of the gut microbiome and gastrointestinal function are already getting a lot more attention. I am concerned that if we cannot provide more evidence of the functional benefits of micronutrient interventions, and given that it is so difficult to improve growth and child development, programs will simply include supplements in their health care package and feel that no more nutrition research is needed.