Dr. Maria Carlota Dao is an assistant professor with the agriculture, nutrition, and food systems department at the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) College of Life Sciences & Agriculture and a scientist with the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station (NHAES) at UNH.
Tell us your journey and how your interest in nutrition developed.
My interdisciplinary research career has focused on investigating factors underlying obesity and cardiometabolic risks. I am originally from Venezuela and came to the United States to study biochemistry and molecular biology at Boston University. I then pursued my interest in nutrition by enrolling in the Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Through my dissertation, I studied the relationship between obesity, aging, iron metabolism, and immune response. After earning my Ph.D., I completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Sorbonne University and the National Institute for Health and Medical Research in France, where I used ‘omics’ data integration approaches to study the role of the gut microbiota in cardiometabolic diseases. I then returned to the United States where, as a scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, I studied food culture and eating behaviors in relation to weight status and weight management in different populations.
In 2020, I began my appointment as Assistant Professor of Human Nutrition at the University of New Hampshire. Throughout my past experiences, I have considered the challenges faced by vulnerable populations, including racial and ethnic minority populations, older adults, and communities with limited resources. It has become evident to me that to address malnutrition in our society, we must address systemic barriers such as food insecurity and limited access to nutritious foods, which should be achieved by involving stakeholders in different sectors, including agriculture. I am now establishing an independent research program focused on identifying barriers and opportunities to healthy diet patterns and investigating the role of diet and the gut microbiota in metabolic health, while focusing on vulnerable populations that are at a disproportionately higher risk of malnutrition and chronic disease in the U.S.
My goal is for these research efforts to lead to lifestyle interventions that consider not only individual biology and behavior, but also community and environmental conditions underlying metabolic health. My research will focus on making these approaches transferable and scalable to benefit health disparity populations broadly. These goals will only be possible through ongoing partnerships with UNH Cooperative Extension and other stakeholders in nutrition. To this end, I have co-led the creation of the New Hampshire Food Access Research Network, a subgroup of the NH Food Access Coalition to foster collaboration among nutrition and health stakeholders in New Hampshire, that will also serve as a platform to disseminate nutrition research initiatives.
Finally, I am passionate about enhancing diversity, inclusion, and equity, and so while working to increase representation of vulnerable populations in research, I am developing a mentoring program that proactively includes trainees of underrepresented backgrounds who will become leaders of nutrition research.
Describe your involvement with NIFA and your role.
As an Assistant Professor of Human Nutrition in the Department of Agriculture, Nutrition, and Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire, I lead a nutrition research laboratory and teach courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. My research focuses on understanding relationships between diet, gut microbiota, and metabolic health to address obesity and cardiometabolic diseases in vulnerable populations. My ongoing projects focus on biological, environmental, psychological, and social barriers to weight management and glycemic control in U.S. Hispanic/Latino communities. In 2021, I became the recipient of a New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station Hatch fund and have additionally received funding for graduate students to support this project.
Could you tell us about one of your NIFA-funded projects? What is the goal of your project and what impact do you hope it has on your institution and trainees?
In alignment with USDA’s strategic goal to “provide access to a safe, nutritious, and secure food supply for all Americans,” the overarching goal of this project is to identify opportunities for the provision and promotion of a nutritious food supply for food insecure populations suffering from a disproportionately high burden of obesity and chronic disease. The specific objective of this project is to quantify the relationship between access to fiber-rich foods, fiber intake, and the gut microbiome in New Hampshire Hispanic adults in SNAP-eligible households, thereby revealing opportunities to provide and promote a nutritious food supply for this food insecure population. This study is being conducted in collaboration with UNH Cooperative Extension and the UNH Hubbard Center for Genome Studies. We are currently in the data collection phase of this study and are implementing our stakeholder engagement plan through community-based activities and stakeholder focus groups.
How has NIFA funding shaped your professional development as a scientist?
The opportunities provided by NIFA have fomented my interdisciplinary interests and led me to structure my research according to the social-ecological framework, where not only individual characteristics and behaviors, but also policies, systems, and environments and social connections modulate health and well-being. My research program, therefore, involves not only studying gut microbe – diet – health interactions, but also establishing and addressing barriers and opportunities to nutrition and health, including strengthening our food systems.
What advice do you have for current students who may be interested in pursuing a similar career path?
To choose a research area that you are passionate about, strive towards a career that fulfills you, do not underestimate the value of meaningful connections with other people (including mentors and mentees), and choose to work in a place where you feel supported and that is compatible with your definition of a work-life balance. Also, research is all about perseverance, so focus on the process as much as on the product of your research.
Learn more about Dr. Dao here:
Dao Research Lab: https://mypages.unh.edu/dao-lab/home
Scholars’ Webpage: https://findscholars.unh.edu/display/md1503
UNH Faculty Page: https://colsa.unh.edu/person/maria-carlota-dao
Top image: Dr. Maria Carlota Dao (center) working with master’s student Brandy Moser (left) and undergraduate alum Jason Hansen ’22.