Janet Tou’s mom saw food science and nutrition in her daughter’s future.
“She would say she was positive I would go into food science or nutrition because of the way I would study my food instead of eat it as a child,” Tou says, jokingly.
But really, it was Tou’s experiments around the house that led her to a research career. They came from a book her dad presented to her as a small child. With the book laid out in front of her, she made crystals of water and salt, imbued celery with dyed water, and tried her hand at plant hybrid breeding only to find that her thumb was not green.
“My mom would allow me to do all these crazy experiments in the home,” Tou said. “When she was cleaning, she would always ask before she threw things out ‘Is this an experiment, or can I throw this away?’”
After each project, she wrote a report that her dad, an electrical engineer, would review.
When she asked her parents the answers to questions they didn’t know, they would drive her to the library and ask her to find the answer herself.
That’s the way she works now as a food science and nutrition researcher at West Virginia University. It’s how she handles students looking for an easy answer from a professor. She basically tells them the same thing her parents told her: “Why don’t you find out?”
From space to the earth, with mice
When she did the exact opposite of what she’d intended – by briefly leaving academia and working with NASA – she discovered her nutritional interests that have seen her through every one of her research projects.
Popular imagination says that NASA is a place where engineers design rockets. But she found her niche in a contract job designing diets for the rodents who accompany astronauts to space.
While food scientists kept thinking about how to keep the rodents’ energy bar from crumbling or causing hassle for the astronauts who had more pressing things to do than feed complicated meals to rodents, Tou wondered if the bar was as nutritional as it could be.
It seems to be a common difference of thought between food scientists and nutritionists, she says. The first wants to engineer food to take on a certain task. And nutritionists like Tou wonder if after all the engineering toward consistency and preservation the food is even worth eating.
While she’s had experience with both, she always questions why a particular dose was chosen. The answer she receives is often “because that’s the highest dose we could get away with without changing the properties.”
“Wrong answer!” Tou says. “It should be the dose that translates into health benefits.”
She’s proud of her contribution of insisting on nutrition and still consults on the food bar with NASA.
A lab full of students
Tou didn’t stay in industry long because her heart was in academia. While nutrition is her focus, her students are her raison d’etre.
In her lab at any one time, Tou has about 10 grad students, five undergrads and two high school students, a variety and number that stands out on a college campus.
In conversation, she could talk about her research, but she’d rather talk about her students, where they’ve come from and where they’re going. It was a student who prompted her to take on her current research, a journey into exploring nutritional therapies for polycystic kidney disease, one of the most common human genetic illnesses.
A doctoral student measuring organs to explain general nutritional affects throughout the body noticed that the kidneys he studied were enlarged. He wondered why.
“So I said, ‘If you’re interested in this kidney, you think up something – you pose a question and you answer it,’” Tou said.
Now it’s the major project in her lab and attracts students from other departments interested in studying aspects of the disease.
“We thought, ‘Well, why not diet? Since there isn’t any other cure for it maybe the diet will help a little bit in terms of alleviating some of the pain,’” Tou said.
Those suffering from the illness typically develop cysts on their kidneys that can cause the kidney to grow to the size of a football, and can spread to the liver, spleen, reproductive system and brain. By the time patients turn 50, many will need renal transplants, she said.
In Tou’s lab, she and her students are exploring how different types of protein would be more effective than others in combating the disease’s effects while maintaining optimal nutrition.
“Any time my students have this question and we have the funding, and they have the time, then I say to them, go for it; answer the question,” she said. “A lot of the research that’s generated out of my lab is not necessarily because I thought of the question. It’s that my students thought of the question and then we designed something around that to answer the question as best as possible.”
It takes all kinds of passions
Tou grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to parents who wanted their children to follow their passions. Her father, who went on to become an electrical engineer, was sent to college to learn agricultural methods to bring back to his family’s farm. But World War II came, and he joined the Navy where he was exposed to working in electronics.
He took to the subject and went on to get his doctorate at Penn State. He expected his children to work hard, which involved Saturday exploration of math problems and not him just giving out the answers. But as someone who’d held onto his passion against the odds, he stressed that they needed to accomplish their own goals.
As Tou looks out at her students, she sees mostly women, but her lab right now includes several men. She wonders how gender has led students to view nutrition a certain way. Men may initially see nutrition through the lens of body building and women through a lens of weight gain and loss. But by the time they reach her lab, they’re all interested in solving a scientific problem.
“In my research, I don’t think it’s a gender issue,” she said. “They perceive it as ‘I don’t want to go into home economics,’ but once they get there, they see it’s just research.”
She likes to tell the story of her first doctoral student, Joey. He was a laid-back artist who drew cartoons and boxed. In the lab, he stood out from her other students. She recently told another former student that he’s now a postdoctoral researcher.
“Our Joey?” the former student said in surprise.
Her students of all ages continue to pleasantly surprise her as they choose to follow their goals.
“I have stories for every single one of my students,” Tou said, “and how they’ve progressed and made me proud.”
By Diana Mazzella
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