Q&A: Karen Peterson on Nutrition

Q&A: Karen Peterson on Nutrition

Questions for Karen Peterson, Professor of Environmental Sciences and new director of the SPH Human Nutrition Program:

What excites you about nutrition?
In nutrition you not only can do research at the cellular level, but you can also find endless opportunities for translating that research to the bedside and then in community settings.

What's your own focus?
My area of passion is child growth and development. I've done work focusing on early nutrition and growth in this country and in developing countries. Research shows that optimal nutrition at different periods in the life cycle can have a strong, positive, modifying influence on environmental exposures. There's also evidence that early undernutrition (in utero and early childhood) actually sets the stage for chronic disease later in life. In a number of developing countries, the problem of persistent undernutrition is coupled with the problem of obesity, which is on the rise, so there's a double burden. I've done a lot of research with obesity interventions for preschool and school-aged children in the U.S.

How is the SPH nutrition program different from others?
We're the only program in the country that can intensely focus on the relationship of the environment to nutrition.

What's ahead?
We are creating an interdisciplinary doctoral program in nutrition that builds on our very strong master's program. We'll focus on three areas that reflect the expertise of our faculty and also of the Medical School and social sciences. One is obesity and chronic disease, going from genes to society. The second is the role of nutrition in modifying environmental exposures, particularly at transitions like pregnancy, puberty, and menopause. And the third is the relationship of nutrition and other lifestyle behaviors to immune function. One of the things you can do in an interdisciplinary context is to interact in ways so that we can start to generate new questions and see if we're missing some critical questions. There are some very thorny problems in nutrition in public health that we haven't yet solved.

Before moving to Michigan this year to direct the SPH Human Nutrition Program, Karen Peterson directed the Program in Public Health Nutrition in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, a program she helped found in 2000. Her research focuses on determinants of intergenerational patterns of growth in mothers and children and the design and evaluation of domestic and international surveillance systems and community-based interventions in low-income, multiethnic populations.