Sometimes, in order to see the status quo, it takes a little distance. When MU’s Peace Corps Fellows return to the United States, they bring their global perspectives to the University of Missouri campus in order to open the minds of students, staff, and community members. Nathan Jensen, Jennifer Keller, Amy Bowes, and Andy Craver are among this year’s fellows. Their work in distant countries has changed them, helping them grow. Now they’re sharing their experience and newfound attitudes with MU.
He calls it “fire in the gut.” It’s the excitement, the burning drive to work through a problem and see the solution. It’s staying up at night, turning something over and over in your head and feeling exhilarated when you finally come up with an answer, says Chris Hardin, Professor and Chair of the Nutritional Sciences Department.
This year’s group of Peace Corps fellows spent time in West Africa, southern Africa, and Kyrgystan. Their experiences were as unique as the countries in which they were located. Nathan Jensen and Jennifer Keller worked as agricultural volunteers in Mali; Amy Bowes taught English in Lesotho; and Andy Craver taught English in Issyk-Kul. Craver’s comment that she “learned a lot more from them then they did from me” echoes the attitudes of all the volunteers.
There are many facets of our nutritional landscape that contribute to the obesity epidemic Hardin is fighting. As a culture, we eat out too much, we take diets to the extreme, and our children don’t play outside as often as children in past generations. Hardin knows our culture has a problem, and he is working to combat it with healthy food and educational intervention.
Metabolism was the perfect science for Hardin to study both because it has an immediate impact and because it can be tested. Hardin’s mother was a physician and his father was a philosopher, so studying metabolics seemed to make perfect sense.
The Nutritional Sciences department is a part of three colleges, and is collaborating with three departments to create a metabolic kitchen. Hardin is overseeing the project, which he hopes will work to combat the obesity epidemic in the U.S.
Hardin’s research will have a number of applications down the road. His first project will affect the way we understand and treat diabetes. His second will help individuals taking drugs called statins to alleviate high cholesterol. He hopes to find some indicator in the human body that will tell whether the particular statins a patient takes are doing permanent damage to his/her muscles.
Although Hardin is wary of taking a stance on specific diets, he does recommend food that doesn’t cause blood-sugar spikes and an overall diet characterized by moderation. “Fundamentally, your grandmother was right," he says. “Eat your vegetables, don’t eat too much junk, go outside and play.” And don’t worry: you can still eat pizza – as long as you don’t eat it all the time.
Hardin gives a tour of what will become MU’s state-of-the-art metabolic kitchen. Although the space in the basement of the Nutritional Sciences building is currently full of old rat cages and unusable lab equipment, Hardin envisions shiny countertops and places to package food. He also hopes to be able to record cooking demonstrations and investigate the way children select their food.
So far, U.S. agriculutural policy has been geared toward making cheap food. According to Hardin, it hasn’t done much in the way of encouraging healthy food. With his research and the new metabolic kitchen, he’s hoping to be able to suggest a new policy that will focus on making healthy foods accessible.
Chris Hardin has two principal lines of research in his laboratory. The first is a close examination of the way the human body metabolizes sugar, which Hardin has been examining for twenty years. For the second and more recent project, Hardin seeks to develop a better way to determine whether certain drugs associated with statin-therapy (for high cholesterol) are causing dangerous muscle pain and weakness.