Growing up just outside of Toronto, Emily Ho was the oldest of two in a small, close-knit family. Her parents were both working professionals, her dad an engineer and her mother a nurse, which means Ho was exposed to a good blend of basic science and public health from a young age.
“When I was growing up I was definitely one of the nerdy kids in school in terms of I loved the math and sciences, and I think I definitely got that from my dad,” she says. From her mom, she wanted to help people and have some application to her work.
Being the animal lover that she is, Ho originally thought she wanted to become a veterinarian. Hoping to pad her resume to look more competitive for veterinary school, she volunteered in a research lab during college. While studying the basic science of fruit flies and oxidant stress, she realized she was more interested in the application side of science and wanted to learn how food components with these antioxidants impacted health. It was that realization that redirected her path to nutrition.
“For me, it changed my trajectory because I really enjoyed doing the research and just challenging myself,” she says. “I found that I was very curious about things. Just trying to figure out how things worked was an eye opening experience for me, and it really changed my thought in terms of what I wanted to do.”
After studying biology for three years at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Ho switched majors to nutritional sciences and began her graduate career before transferring to The Ohio State University where she finished her doctorate. She then went to the University of California, Berkeley to complete post-doctorate work.
Throughout her college experience, Ho held positions assisting and leading research. She started off her professional career in 2003 as an associate professor in Nutrition and Exercise Sciences at Oregon State University.
As the new endowed director for the Moore Family Center for Whole Grain Foods, Nutrition and Preventive Health, she hopes to make the center a hub for nutrition research and its application. She’s already leaving a lasting impression with those she teaches, mentors and speaks to in public presentations.
“People really do take home some messages in terms of health, ‘I need to eat a little bit more broccoli, I need to make sure that I get my vitamins right to live better,’” she says. “I can’t say that I’ve had an experience where I’ve felt like I’ve cured cancer, but I do know that when people hear me speak they are inspired to try to eat better.”
One of her major contributions to the field is her work establishing an understanding of the effects of diet.
“When you don’t get certain things in your diet, like enough vegetables or enough essential nutrients, it is clear that bad things that happen in your cells,” she says.
Ho’s also worked to communicate that eating a healthy diet cannot be replaced by prescriptions at a pharmacy.
“I think that message is coming out more now that there are a lot of supplements out there. Some are good and some are bad, but I think my research really shows that healthy foods and a healthy diet is really what works best,” she says.
Ho’s work in nutrition doesn’t stop at her office door.
“I have the misfortune and fortune of having a son who’s an extremely picky eater,” she says.
In fact, her son is often the topic of her nutrition classes. Even though most of her classes focus on the science of nutrients, she’s able to take her personal knowledge of promoting healthy eating in a picky eater, and use it in class to help teach her students.
“It’s interesting as someone with a nutrition background to say, ‘OK how do I get my son who hates anything that is not white to eat more fruits and vegetables,’” she says. “So I feel like I practice in my daily life how to motivate and educate others on the science of nutrition.”