Emerging leader, Tho Pham, stands next to his award-winning poster.

A UConn nutritional sciences postdoctoral fellow, who was named an “emerging leader” in his field at a recent international event, began the path to nutrition research when he was studying biochemistry as a Nebraska undergraduate.

“I was always curious about science and loved biochemistry. But, I never imagined being in nutritional sciences,” said Tho Pham, who is the first place winner of the postdoctoral fellow category in American Society for Nutrition’s Emerging Leaders in Nutrition Science poster competition at Experimental Biology 2017. Four hundred nutritional scientists judged the competition.

In referring to this award and Pham’s USDA pre and postdoctoral fellowship grants, Department of Nutritional Sciences Head Sung Koo said, “Tho is truly an emerging scholar.”

Scholar Pham is not new to receiving honors. For example, his first exposure to nutritional sciences started with an Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience (UCARE) award at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln where he was a student. The UCARE website says that the program is “a paid opportunity for undergraduates to work one-on-one with a faculty research advisor conducting cutting-edge research…”

Coincidentally, Pham’s advisor was Ji-Young Lee, who was on the faculty at Nebraska at the time and now heads up the UConn lab where Pham currently does research. Lee says she remembers Pham from those days because of his scientific curiosity and his willingness to explore new things.

Through the experience of working in Lee’s lab as an undergraduate, Pham came to appreciate the field of nutrition more. He said he saw how “basic science can be applied to human health.” The field of nutrition was a place where he could make a difference.

After receiving a BS at Nebraska, Pham came to UConn to do predoctoral work and get his PhD in nutritional sciences. His postdoctoral training grant will help him prepare to be a research scientist and teacher under Lee’s supervision.

Pham’s current research area is investigating bioactive compounds, found in foods, in order to improve human health in disease conditions. His biochemistry background is helping him in this effort. Lee explains, “Tho is a great critical thinker and his understanding of research topics is excellent. Tho also has mastered various biochemical and molecular research tools.”

In the future, he plans to study how bioactive compounds in foods can affect biological mechanisms that can turn genes on or off. This emerging field is called “nutritional epigenetics.”

Specifically, as part of his current research, Pham set out to discover if a new form of vitamin B3 called NR, which the body converts to a coenzyme, has the potential to reduce the activation of cells that can scar the liver. His winning poster title, “Nicotinamide Riboside, an NAD+ Precursor, Attenuates the Activation of Hepatic Stellate Cells,” explains the study in a scientific way.

This work is progressing to look at what effect NR has within mice. “If the supplement works, it can become a therapeutic for people to use for liver health,” Pham said. Currently, there is no FDA-approved anti-fibrotic therapy, according to Pham. However, if a bioactive, such as NR, can lower body weight gain, reduce inflammation and boost NAD+ levels in cells, liver health will improve.

Once his fellowship ends, this emerging leader aims to become a nutritional sciences professor and researcher in a university setting. According to Lee, he is well on his way. “It is one of most rewarding experiences that I have had as faculty to observe Tho growing as a great scientist. Tho’s work ethic, enthusiasm to satisfy his scientific curiosity and never-give-up attitude are great attributes to guide him to reach his maturity in research,” Lee said.

By Patsy Evans