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Improving Public Health through Nutrition—at Home and Abroad: Q & A with Susan Roberts, PhD

With the recent hiring of Susan B. Roberts, PhD, as the new Senior Associate Dean of Foundational Research at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, the medical school has an exciting opportunity to further expand its research impact locally, nationally, and across the world.

Sue Roberts
Susan B. Roberts, PhD. Photo by Kurt Wehde

Roberts, an internationally known nutrition and behavioral change scientist, has more than 30 years of experience developing innovative research programs to advance health in the U.S. and abroad. Before joining Dartmouth, she was a senior scientist in the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, MA, and served as a professor of nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, co-director of the Tufts Institute for Global Obesity Research, and adjunct professor of psychiatry and scientific staff member in pediatrics at Tufts School of Medicine.

In the following Q & A, Roberts talks about her background, her research, and her leadership role at Geisel—which includes overseeing the strategic advancement of its research initiatives.

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about your background—where you grew up and how your career in medicine evolved?

Roberts: My parents were British, but my father was working for the Canadian government when I was born. They moved back to the U.K., where I spent most of my childhood. From an early age, I really liked food and cooking, so much so that when I was in high school, I worked as a sous-chef in a local French restaurant, and I loved it.

But I came to realize that I’m kind of compulsively a morning person. Restaurants are all about working late while other people are out “funning around,” so the lifestyle just wasn’t for me. That’s how I ended up going to do an undergraduate degree in nutrition because it was like an alternate way to have a career in food.

I was planning to do a PhD in obesity science but got this cool opportunity to work as a research technician in Africa, where I’ve done a lot of under-nutrition work. That led to me getting a PhD back in Cambridge on a similar topic, after which I moved to Boston for a postdoc at MIT. I would say all these things were opportunistic. I think that’s an important thing to do in research, to be open to possibilities that float by you because there’s lots of exciting things to do.

Q: What attracted you to Dartmouth?

Roberts: At Dartmouth, I have the opportunity to support research over a very wide area, from basic science to epidemiology, and to work with top scientists across different disciplines—something that I really enjoy doing.

Dartmouth has great people, a collaborative culture, strong funding, and excellent facilities. It’s also in the unique position of being a major employer and healthcare provider in the state and region. With these attributes I think we can become the epicenter for implementing quality health research programs in the state to support population health and become a model for other states, work that will include not just Geisel and Dartmouth Health, but also I hope Tuck, Thayer, and Arts and Sciences. Our new president’s focus on One Dartmouth is something that I strongly believe in and hope to support with this work.

Q: In your role as Geisel’s new Senior Associate Dean of Foundational Research, what are your main priorities in the coming year?

Roberts: My main priority is to serve the faculty and to be useful, so I’m engaged in a series of intense meetings with people across campus to find out things like—what are the barriers to impactful, important research here and how can we address those? What are our faculty excited about and what do they want to achieve? What’s most important to them and how best can we support them?

I also very much want to bring the experience of excitement and fun in health research to Dartmouth. It’s a great job and we’re privileged to do it. And, you know, given the pressures and challenges of today’s research environments, people can sometimes lose sight of that.

Q: How do you describe the focus of your research?

Roberts: My research is all directed towards improving public health through nutrition and we use a mix of traditional approaches, such as interviews and surveys, and advanced science methodologies to achieve that goal.

One example of an advanced approach, that we’ve been using on malnourished kids in Africa, involves measuring cerebral blood flow with near-infrared spectroscopy. By basically shining a strong light into the patient’s head, we’re able to measure cerebral blood flow, and we can even do this in subsistent farming villages by taking a generator along.

We’re also using the same methodology in a randomized trial testing a nutritional supplement in seniors in the U.S. to look and see whether we can prevent cognitive decline as people age.

Q: Where do you feel your work has had the greatest impact?

Roberts: I think there are two areas where we’ve had the most impact. One is that we’ve made genuine advances in the treatment of obesity—the behavioral methods I’ve developed are effective and easy to adopt, and sustainable for many people. So, without drugs we’re able to help people achieve medically impactful weight loss and largely keep that off.

The other is we had the first nutrition prescription to actually reverse cognitive impairment in young children. Previously, the wisdom on the ground was that if a child became nutritionally deficient during the first few years of life that would result in permanent cognitive impairment. Using a new prescription I developed and tested, we were able to prove that you can get dramatic reversal of cognitive impairment during the first four years in children who have been eating poorly.

Q: What are some other major activities that you’re currently engaged in at Dartmouth?

Roberts: I’m leading an NIH consortium comprising seven universities in the U.S., and we’re looking at the physiology of the weight-reduced state to try and understand why some people gain weight after weight loss versus people who manage to keep the weight loss off—with the view of providing the scientific evidence to improve treatment programs.

We are also heading up an international weight control registry to understand how successful weight management happens in different countries. Obesity is a driver of poor health all over the world these days and how to turn things around may be different in Brazil or Greece versus America or Kuwait, because the environmental challenges and cultures are different. We’re going to be hosting the registry here—the strong computer facilities and capabilities of Dartmouth make it an ideal hub for that research—and we’ll have collaborators from all over the world putting their participants into our database.

Q: It’s been a few months since you joined the Dartmouth community; what are your impressions so far?

Roberts: I love living in New Hampshire. It’s a beautiful place and the people are warm and friendly. And Dartmouth is an amazing place. It’s a powerhouse of nice people, and it has such a vibrant academic community.

There’s so much going on and there’s so many different schools—whether you’re talking about Geisel, Tuck, Thayer or Arts and Sciences—that are part of the Dartmouth family, it really gives us a chance to do good in the world by bringing people together across disciplines. I’m very excited by the opportunities and by the great reception and introductions I’ve had so far.