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In this new Vital Signs series, we feature graduate student Autumn Grace Hullings in the Gordon-Larsen lab. Inspired by the emerging field of precision nutrition, Hullings would like to improve dietary guidelines to prevent or reduce cardiometabolic disease.

Autumn Grace Hullings is a 4th year pre-doctoral trainee in the lab of Penny Gordon-Larsen, PhD, FTOS, FAHA, the Carla Smith Chamblee Distinguished Professor of Global Nutrition in the Department of Nutrition and the Vice Chancellor for Research. In the lab, Hullings uses metabolomics data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study to investigate the effect of diet on lipids and cardiometabolic health.

Q: What were your interests when young, and how did you get into biomedical science?

A: In high school, I took an environmental science course that introduced me to the work of food journalist and activist, Michael Pollan. I was immediately captivated by his books, ‘In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto’ and ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ which sparked my interest in public health and nutrition science. As an undergraduate at Gettysburg College, I had the opportunity to study the federal response to the 2015-2016 Zika virus outbreak in Washington, DC. Inspired by this experience, I pursued a career in public health epidemiology and earned my Masters of Public Health Epidemiology degree with a focus in nutrition from the George Washington University.

After graduating, I went on to work as an Epidemiological Research Analyst within the Metabolic Epidemiology Branch at the National Cancer Institute. During my 3 years in this role, I worked on studies related to diet and gastrointestinal cancers which expanded my knowledge of nutritional epidemiology and introduced me to novel ‘-omics’ data such as metabolomics, microbiomics, and genomics. Through fantastic mentorship and colleagues, I was encouraged to apply to doctoral programs in order to further my education and career as a nutrition scientist.

Q: Why did you choose UNC and the lab you are in?

A: As a top-ranked public health program, I was immediately drawn to the research and training opportunities at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. After being accepted into the nutrition doctoral program, I quickly found my home within Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen’s research lab working on a grant that leverages multi-omics approaches to study cardiometabolic health.

However, I started the doctoral program just after the COVID-19 pandemic began which was extremely difficult to navigate as a new student. Having a supportive lab was critical for my health and success in the program, which is exactly what I found within the Gordon-Larsen research group. Now, as a 4th year pre-doctoral trainee, I feel incredibly lucky to work with an interdisciplinary team of biostatisticians, epidemiologists, programmers, and geneticists who have provided such a warm, collaborative, and encouraging environment.

Q: What are you working on right now?

A: My current doctoral research investigates the effect of diet on lipids and cardiometabolic health using metabolomics data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. The goal of my dissertation is to identify underlying biological pathways related to diet and lipids that differ by population subgroups.

My work was inspired by the emerging field of precision nutrition, which uses an individual’s traits such as their genetic makeup, microbial communities, and metabolome profile to understand their unique metabolic and physiological response to diet. Ultimately, I hope my research can help inform precision nutrition recommendations to improve dietary guidelines and prevent or reduce cardiometabolic disease.

Q: What inspires you the most about working in your field?

A: I am constantly inspired by the level of innovation and the work of others within the field of nutrition science. Nutrition affects nearly every aspect of health from chronic disease prevention, susceptibility to infectious diseases, agriculture and environmental policies, mental health, and health behavior. This cross-cutting nature of the nutrition field has allowed me to work with people from all backgrounds with brilliant expertise. I am most excited to continue to challenge myself with new types of data and methods, while working on interdisciplinary teams, to help move the field of nutrition forward.

Q: What are your goals after earning your PhD?

A: Professionally, I hope to pursue a career in nutrition research, ideally focused on precision nutrition initiatives where I can incorporate my knowledge of nutritional epidemiology and multi-omics methods. I would also love to make Michael Pollan proud by becoming more involved in nutrition communication, publishing, and journalism. On a personal level, I plan to move closer to family, travel more, and possibly get a cat.