Inside the mind of researcher Emily Ho

Emily-Ho-HeaderAssociate Professor and Moore Family Center for Whole Grain Foods, Nutrition and Preventive Health Endowed Director Emily Ho came to Oregon State in 2003. Before joining Oregon State, Emily completed a postdoctoral research fellowship at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and UC Berkeley and served as a graduate research and teaching associate at The Ohio State University’s Department of Human Nutrition, where she earned a PhD.


What made you decide to get into this field of study? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?

“I originally didn’t think I was going to be a nutrition researcher when I was growing up, I had a love for animals so I always thought I was going to be a veterinarian. When I was in college, I thought I needed to pad my resume and gain some research experience so I completed a summer research project and really enjoyed it. At that time, I was a genetics researcher studying antioxidants and I really liked the research, but I wanted something that made me understand why we care about this – and at that time my genetics professor told me antioxidants are in a lot of foods, so there are a lot of foods that could potentially feed into these pathways and prevent disease, and I was like, ‘Wow, that is pretty cool.’ He referred me to Tammy Bray, who at that time was a professor in the nutrition department at my university. I started working in her lab as an undergrad to learn about how nutrition affects antioxidant pathways and disease processes, and from there I decided to completely change what I wanted to do because it just fascinated me and I wanted to learn more.”

Emily-HoWhat does your current research entail?

“I’m very interested in what we eat and how food has an impact in terms of healthy lifestyles and letting us live better. I have certain diseases that I’m interested in, especially cancer, but I’m also interested in obesity, cardiovascular disease, how to age healthier and also how healthy eating affects children’s ability to be who they are. So overall, being better through what you eat.”

What sparked your interest in this topic?

“Everybody eats food, so it’s really something that can impact everyone and especially over the last decade, people have realized the food they put in their bodies has a big impact on their health. It’s an easy way to put yourself on a good path, and I’m really fascinated by the processes that lead to it.”

How will this make a difference?

“A lot of people are becoming disenfranchised with the health care system and the fact that you need to treat disease – and the power of nutrition is that you can prevent it in the first place and put yourself on a path where you don’t have to even have the disease. So, your suffering is limited, health care costs are limited and it’s something that’s accessible to anybody.”

What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of this research?

“You think it’s an easy equation – you eat something that’s good for you and you get better. But it’s clearly a lot more complex than that. There’s nutrients in food as well as non-nutriative components that have some health benefits. There’s individual things that work, there’s things in combination that work, there’s dietary patterns and there’s exercise that all play a role, and I think that is really fascinating trying to understand all of those interactions. Also, most people know that eating fruits and vegetables and whole grains are good for you, but people aren’t doing it. I am trying to understand how we get to the next step of getting people to adopt healthy lifestyles. I think my research provides the foundation for the evidence base, but there’s this whole other world of application to the community that’s important, too.”

OSU Executive Chef Jay Perry, Bob Moore of Bob's Red Mill and CPHHS Moore Family Center Director Emily Ho.

OSU Executive Chef Jay Perry, Bob Moore of Bob’s Red Mill and CPHHS Moore Family Center Director Emily Ho.

What do you hope is the outcome of your research?

“People are healthier – that would be great. More and more people are becoming more aware of nutrition, but there’s still a lot of people we need to reach about the importance of nutrition in their health. If my science can help someone over the tipping point of understanding why nutrition is good for them, that leads to them adopting that lifestyle, I call that a win.”

Are you working with anyone else in the CPPHS on this project?

“Who don’t I work with in the college? Nutrition is a multidisciplinary field in it’s own, so I work with a lot of faculty members within nutrition, but I also work with researchers in biostatistics, epidemiology, exercise and sport science, and human development and family sciences. Almost all of the disciplines in our college have a connection with my research because my focus is across the lifespan. I think a big strength of our college is that we have expertise in multiple areas that moves all of our fields forward.”

Why is research important in the field of nutrition?

“Nutrition is one of the few fields where even if you’re not in nutrition, there are a lot of people who think they are experts. It’s important for faculty and students in nutrition to really be champions for the evidence-base and what is true versus what is not true. Nutrition, especially most recently, is one of the fields where there is a ton of misinformation out there that’s very accessible to the public and it’s hard for the average person to figure out what is true and what’s not. Providing research and the evidence-base is key to getting the right information to the right people.”

Emily Ho presents on how to eat a healthy lunch at Destination OSU in Arizona.

Emily Ho presents on how to eat a healthy lunch at Destination OSU in Arizona.

What’s next for you? Do you have any future research projects lined up?

“We definitely don’t have all the answers. There’s still a lot of mechanisms to be identified. People need more answers regarding what is a true healthy diet. We have a general sense of things, but it’s very clear that each individual has a different story or potentially a different need. That’s a big area of my research in terms of trying to identify either across the lifespan what those needs may be or how other environmental factors such as where you live and what you have access to may change your needs.”

What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it?

“It was my mom. She likes to tell this story about how when I was a toddler she didn’t think I was very bright – largely because I have very poor eyesight and when I was young I would take a toy and just stare at it forever. She tells this story because she always encourages me not to take things at face value and to recognize that things are not always what you expect. Even if you have something that seems to be a barrier to you, sometimes it’s not what you think and you just need to move forward.”

What advice would you give to current students and recent alums?

“Keep an open mind. Like I said, when I was in college I thought I was going to be a veterinarian. I think I would be happy as a veterinarian, but I don’t think I would be as happy as I am now. I love what I do and I don’t think that would have happened unless I talked to people and got different experiences including the research. Try to expose yourself to different things and push yourself outside your comfort zone because sometimes it can bring you in directions you wouldn’t anticipate.”

What are your favorite activities to do outside of work?

“Spending time with my family. I have two little boys who are very active and I love to do things with them. I love food, so having a nice glass of wine with a meal with my husband is also something I enjoy. I’m also a pretty active person and love to get outside, go running, biking and snowboarding, and teaching kickboxing.”

Click here to learn more from CPHHS researchers in these “Inside the mind of researcher” feature stories.