A transdisciplinary laboratory at the Brown School is undertaking research across the world to address “hidden hunger”— poverty-related nutritional deficiencies in mothers and young children.
The founder and director of the E3 Nutrition Lab is Lora Iannotti, associate professor and associate dean for public health. The three “E”s represent the lab’s principles for nutrition interventions: environmentally sustainable, economically affordable, and evolutionarily appropriate.
“Our group comprises faculty, staff, and students from across campus and even across the globe working together to prevent malnutrition from different disciplinary perspectives,” Iannotti said. The lab includes faculty from Washington University’s schools of Medicine, Arts & Sciences, and McKelvey School of Engineering, as well as doctoral and master’s students in both public health and social work.
“We involve these disciplines to better understand and work to solve biological and societal determinants of nutrition and health,” she said.
A good example of the transdisciplinary focus is the lab’s main current project, a three-year nutrition intervention in Ecuador funded by the Children’s Discovery Institute, a collaboration between the Brown School, the Washington University School of Medicine, and Universidad San Franscisco de Quito in Ecuador. The teams include faculty from pediatric radiology, neurology, engineering, and the metabolomics facility at the School of Medicine.
Researchers will be studying fetal growth and brain development during pregnancy. During the intervention, 100 pregnant women will be given a diet based on the evolutionary past as well as those identified to be environmentally sustainable and affordable in Ecuador (e.g., fish, eggs, potatoes, berries and nuts). Importantly, the women will also be encouraged to avoid ultra-processed food like cookies, crackers or soda. Researchers will measure brain development of the fetus during pregnancy, along with nutrient biomarkers from the mothers’ blood samples. At birth, the newborns will be measured and weighed and ultrasound images will be taken of different brain regions. The results will be compared to another 100 women in the control group.
Stunted growth in children is important because it can precipitate infectious disease and even death in the short term; in the long term, it has developmental consequences that can affect generations.
Jennifer Nicholas, MD, a pediatric radiologist and assistant professor at the School of Medicine, is looking at new ways to measure fetal brain development and leading the effort to train staff in Ecuador to acquire the images that will measure the intervention’s results.
“We’re trying to take a deeper dive into brain structure and development,” she said. “This project has allowed me to bring my skillset to the table and provide potential new biomarkers for the work that Lora does.”
“Our project demonstrates the power of collaboration,” she said. “It’s been inspiring for me.”
The lab launched in January 2018 with the arrival of Melissa Chapnick, the lab manager, and the emergence of more nutrition-related projects. “I followed Lora’s work for several years before having the opportunity to work with her,” said Chapnick, a dietitian working in nutrition and public health. Chapnick became involved in Iannotti’s Lulun Project in Ecuador through the Summer Research Program at the Institute for Public Health.
“I’ve become more mindful of solutions that are appropriate globally, and the importance of contextual differences across our research sites,” Chapnick said. For example, while animal-source foods like eggs, fish, and milk are frequently consumed in the U.S., that’s not the case in other parts of the world. “These foods are good sources of several micronutrients that are very important for young children, and they are renewable, making them more environmentally sustainable,” she said. “A question that is central to our research is how to feed people in a way that does not cause harm to the environment.”
Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish
The lab recently received two grants from the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish, which supports sustainable and resilient aquaculture and fisheries systems to enhance food safety and nutrition, improve fish production and increase trade to improve nutrition and bolster small-scale producers in developing countries. Funded by the Unites States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Fish Innovation Lab is led by Mississippi State University and several partner institutions, including Washington University. Iannotti is part of the management team and serves as the nutrition director for the lab.
The first project is in Kenya, involving inventory and market analysis of coastal marine fish for food. Researchers will interview fishers, market women, and households in and near fishing villages, asking about things like how often they eat fish, what kinds, and whether they feed it to children. At the same time, they’ll be working with a fisheries ecologist.
“What we’re trying to do is link environmental practices of fisheries and the ecosystem functioning and how that relates to food security,” Iannotti said. The one-year project will inform a larger study and help provide policy and program recommendations in a collaboration between environmentalists and food nutrition and safety.
Austin Humphries, an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island, is a fisheries ecologist on the research team. “My role is thinking about the fish that are being caught, sold and consumed and the effects that has on the health of the ecosystem,” he said. Parrotfish, for example, eat seaweed that can harm coral reefs. He’ll be looking at the extent to which those fish are being caught and consumed to explore the linkage of people’s health with fisheries and resource management.
“This is my first time working with nutritionists,” he said. “I’ve worked a lot in fisheries, but we usually stop our studies when the fish hit the household. Now, we’re taking it one step further, to explore the linkage of people’s health with resource management. It’s why I’m working with the E3 Lab.”
A second grant from the Fish Innovation Lab will fund a project in Nigeria, where Joe Steensma, professor of practice at the Brown School, will be studying fish farming.
“We’re trying to understand where value is added and where value is lost after a fish is harvested,” Steensma said. The value they’ll be looking at is nutrition, economic development and sustainability of the aquaculture industry that is relatively new to Nigeria, a nation with both nutrition and economic problems.
The project will be conducted alongside a WorldFish project, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Together, the projects will assess markets, households and consumption in 10 states of Nigeria. The goal is to improve the capacity of the fisheries to feed people in a sustainable way.
Next, the team will work on interventions to reduce post-harvest loss and help increase production to an exportable scale. “If we can help them become more efficient, the aquaculture sector can not only provide fish for people in Nigeria, but grow to become an exporter of fish to other parts of the world, improving Nigeria’s overall economy to increase wealth and economic activity,” Steensma said. “It’s a real opportunity to promote economic development in a sustainable way.”