by Lara Goodrich Ezor
Over the last 20 years, Dr. Nicola McKeown has worn many hats within the Tufts community, and this academic year marks her promotion from Assistant to Associate Professor of Nutritional Epidemiology (NEPI). In her new roles as program director and associate professor, McKeown hopes to strengthen the NEPI program, continue her research on whole grain consumption, and mentor students on their way to a PhD.
A little background on McKeown. On-and-off since 1993, McKeown has worked at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA), starting her journey as a post-graduate doing data entry and subsequently returning as a scientist in the Nutritional Epidemiology department. Four years ago, Dr. McKeown joined the faculty at Friedman to teach Nutritional Epidemiology, and went on to become the Director of our Nutritional Epidemiology Program.
Originally from Ireland, McKeown knew she wanted to study nutrition when, during her high school home economics class, she found herself more interested in food additives and cooking than developing her sewing and knitting skills. She was then accepted into one of the two undergraduate programs for nutrition in Ireland at the University of Ulster.
In 1993, upon graduation, McKeown was drawn to the United States without a clear sense of what would come next. However, thanks to her determination and good timing, she quickly found a job opportunity at the HNRCA. While doing data entry, Nicola was encouraged to pursue her many interests and explore opportunities on and off-campus.
“I remember being so excited by all of the opportunities…there was so much exposure to nutrition,” she said of her early years at Tufts. “During those two years, I think I attended every seminar.”
After two years working at the HNRCA, McKeown returned to the UK to pursue a PhD in Nutritional Epidemiology at the University of Cambridge, where she completed her doctorate in 2000.
Then, the newly minted Dr. McKeown crossed the Atlantic once again and returned to the HNRCA, this time as a scientist in the Nutritional Epidemiology department.
Throughout her career, her breadth of publications on an array of nutrition topics has solidified McKeown as a unique asset to the Tufts community. Her specialties include: researching the role of diets high in whole grains for weight management and chronic disease risk, evaluating the application of biomarkers for whole-grain intake in observational studies, and the interaction between genes and diet in relation to disease.
Recently, McKeown received funding from the HNRCA’s Pilot Grants Program to conduct a six-week pilot study. The study will recruit high-sugar consumers, randomly assign participants to a low-sugar diet and a high-sugar diet for a designated time period, and then test for differences in liver fat accumulation, visceral adipose tissue, and cardio-metabolic risk factors.
“Given that dietary fiber is a nutrient of concern, and sugar intake in the US is believed to be a leading culprit of disease, I hope to continue my research examining the health impact of these attributes of diet on disease risk, using a range of complementary approaches, including prospective population-based cohorts, nutrition intervention trials, biomarkers, and genetics,” McKeown explained. “Collaboration is a key element to all of this, and I’m fortunate to work with exceptional scientists at Tufts. So I’m very excited about the future avenues.”
In discussing the potential impacts of her research, McKeown emphasized the need to improve the health of people by successfully targeting change in two aspects of diet — increasing dietary fiber and reducing added sugar intake. “To do this successfully,” she added, “we need to continue our efforts in educating consumers about hidden sugars, choosing healthy whole-grain snacks, and eating a variety of foods high in fiber.”
Now a mother and a professor, much has changed for McKeown since she began her work at the HNRCA as a college graduate in the early 1990s, and she is grateful for where she is today and for those who made it possible.
“I hit some stumbling blocks along the way, but I eventually found my way as a scientist and slowly made my way up the ranks. My career path has really flourished under many at the HNRCA and Tufts…I’ve had great mentors along the way, and I think that’s really instrumental in anyone’s success.”
Looking forward, Dr. McKeown hopes to be involved in more intervention studies and to continue to mentor students in order to make their time at Tufts as fruitful as possible.
“Having come from the ‘bottom-up,’ I think now, being on the other side of the fence, where I’m faculty, I can pay that forward for the student,” she said. “I can make it about what they envision, and help them reach their dreams and goals.”
For more information on Dr. McKeown, including a list of publications, visit:
Lara Goodrich Ezor is a first-year FPAN student from Atlanta who heartily enjoys vegetables, singing and living in Somerville.