A hearty welcome to Rufus Theophilus, a first year Nutritional Sciences Ph.D. student in the Food Science and Human Nutrition department at UF! Rufus recently joined Dr. Liwei Gu‘s lab after spending last year honing his molecular research skills. Learn about his fascinating journey to the FSHN department, his contributions to the fight against food insecurity, and what he feels is the most important fact the public should know about gut microbiota.
How did you choose the Ph.D. in Nutritional Sciences program at UF?
The University of Florida was one of my top choices when I decided to pursue graduate studies in nutritional sciences back in 2013. During my undergraduate program, I learned about UF from senior colleagues who were attending UF. That marked the beginning of my quest to be part of the Gator family. In 2018-2019, I was completing my Master’s degree in Nutritional Sciences focused on food product development at Texas Tech University. Although I was in the nutritional sciences department for my Master’s degree, I worked in the food science lab, and that inspired me to pursue Ph.D. research combining elements of food science and nutritional sciences.
The public needs to be aware of the consequences of their dietary choices or habits on their gut microbiota. Such knowledge can empower individuals to take charge of their gut health and curtail the burdens associated with IBD.
I believe drawing experience from both fields of study will help me design and facilitate interventions that will not only address major research gaps but will also have a positive impact on health outcomes in populations. Joining the FSHN department was the best choice to help me reach this goal. In a nutshell, the quality of program and the great reputation of UF informed my decision to choose the Ph.D. in Nutritional Sciences program at UF.
You’ve had a fascinating academic journey! Can you tell me about your background in addressing food insecurity in developing countries and community nutrition?
Yes, I have had a fascinating academic journey because I have a firsthand experience of the extremes, having studied and worked in a developing country before moving to a developed nation like the United States. Also, having transitioned (after my Master’s degree) from a community nutrition-oriented program into a molecular-based nutritional sciences program is a major highlight of my academic journey.
I began addressing food insecurity during my undergraduate years while working toward my first degree in Nutrition and Dietetics. My first shot at combating food insecurity was during a class project where I led a group of students to do demographic, anthropometric and nutritional assessments of school children in Abeokuta, Southwest Nigeria. In community nutrition, these steps are key to evaluating the severity of food insecurity experienced by any given population or community, informing what level or type of intervention is required. Another project focused on the nutritional knowledge and food habits of farmers in the Odeda local government area of Abeokuta. This project addressed food security advocacy and extension programs among rural farmers in the region.
After graduation, I served at the State Specialists Hospital (SSH) Okitipupa, Ondo State, under the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). During this one-year appointment, I actively participated both as a team member and as facilitator in interventional programs that targeted the police officers, secondary school students and market women or traders. My most recent effort at addressing food insecurity in developing countries was through “The Greening and Optimization of Agricultural Transformation (GOAT) Project” which was conducted in Malawi.
How and why did you transition from community nutrition to molecular-based nutritional sciences?
My partner and I wanted to explore graduate studies at UF, so I embarked on Optional Practical Training (OPT) as a research assistant in Dr. James Collins‘ lab. This position allowed me to visit different labs to learn about their research and the possibility of joining if I was interested. Although I had a strong background in community nutrition, I took up this trainee job position to explore molecular-based nutritional sciences research. I anticipate that these experiences will aid my career goals as a researcher whose passion centers on translational studies. For example, providing healthy food alternatives can lead to behavioral changes, which may entrench adequate dietary practices, prevent/manage chronic diseases such as cancer, obesity, and T2D and improve overall health outcomes. Being able to apply my community nutrition experience to my new research area will better position me to achieve these goals.
In fall 2020, I joined Dr. Gu’s lab where I have been working on using dealcoholized muscadine wine (DMW) to prevent inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Would you tell me about your current project?
My current project involves studying the bioactivity of microbial metabolites derived from DMW and their synergistic interactions with butyric acid in the prevention of IBD. This study is an in vitro component of a major USDA grant project seeking the synergistic interactions between muscadine wine and gut microbiota in preventing intestinal inflammation and barrier dysfunction. My work focuses on determining the beneficial effects of the polyphenols or the microbial metabolites generated from the consumption of DMW. These effects can help pinpoint potential anti-inflammatory and other positive properties of DMW that will clarify how IBD develops. To study this, I am working with intestinal epithelial cells (IEC-6 cells) of rat and human Caco-2 cell lines to mimic the in vivo conditions of the gut microbiota when DMW is consumed.
The results of this project will be invaluable to scientists and/or physicians who have had to contend with the idiopathic nature of inflammatory bowel disease and its comorbidities. I hope to foster a greater understanding of the pathogenesis of IBD. In addition, a positive outcome from this project may increase demand for muscadine grapes, yielding financial gain for farmers and growers.
What do you believe is the most important fact the public should know about gut microbiota?
It is important that the public recognize that the composition of our gut microbiota is in a delicate balance. This is because the microbiome affects us in so many ways – our immune system, how the human body responds to nutrition and the developmental processes occurring in humans are connected with the microbiota. An imbalance in microbiome or microbial dysbiosis can trigger chronic diseases such as heart disease, lung disease, liver and kidney diseases, ulcer, arthritis, obesity, diabetes, colon cancer and, of course, IBD.
Although increased risk of developing IBD may result from genetic predispositions, studies have also revealed several other risk factors that contribute to IBD are nonheritable. Examples include lifestyle (i.e. stress, lack of exercise and sleep), dietary habits, medications, hygiene and smoking, to mention a few. Adjusting exposure to these risk factors can go a long way in maintaining healthy gut microbiota. The public needs to be aware of the consequences of their dietary choices or habits on their gut microbiota. Such knowledge can empower individuals to take charge of their gut health and curtail the burdens associated with IBD.
What do you want to do after graduation?
I intend to work in academia after graduation, perhaps as a post-doc before eventually securing a faculty position. I will embrace it all when the time comes. Moreover, I intend to serve as an adjunct faculty member to a university in Africa or in my home country (Nigeria) where my services will most likely be needed.
What do you like to do in your free time?
It depends on what you mean by “free time” and how much “free time” I have. I am a Christian (Catholic), so I sometimes channel my free time to spiritual activities. Also, free time could mean sporting time – especially soccer. At other times, free time activities could be traveling to new places, reading interesting books and learning new ideas, learning to play instruments (guitar and piano) and volunteering where my expertise is needed.
What is the most interesting food you’ve ever eaten?
So far, I have had several kinds of foods, including African, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Caribbean and American cuisines, but I cannot say if there is a particular food that I find “most interesting.” Although I am not a foodie, I believe I am yet to taste or eat what I will regard as “the most interesting food.” So, the tasting and exploration continues for me.