Associate Professor Urszula Iwaniec came to Oregon State’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences in 2005 after working as an assistant research scientist in the Department of Physiological Sciences at the University of Florida. She earned a master’s degree in anthropology at Arizona State University and a PhD in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin.
What made you decide to get into this field of study? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?
“My formal training is in anthropology. As part of my PhD, I focused on the effects of diet on disease patterns in past populations and worked predominantly with skeletal remains. To increase my understanding of bone as a living tissue, I trained as a postdoctoral fellow at the Osteoporosis Research Center at Creighton University in Omaha. After three years of seeing older women, many stooped over, walk by my office door on their way to the Osteoporosis Clinic, I changed my career from anthropology to biomedical research with a focus on bone disease. While anthropology will always be my first love, my current work is both stimulating and very rewarding.”
What does your current research entail?
“The broad emphasis of my research is metabolic bone disease. This is an important area of research because bone disease and associated fractures can have a devastating effect on quality of life, especially for at-risk groups such as the frail and elderly. I am currently focusing on three specific areas: 1) the relationship between body weight – ranging from anorexia to obesity – and bone metabolism with special emphasis on leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells, 2) the dose, gender and age effects of alcohol consumption on bone and 3) nutrition as a factor in breast cancer metastasis to bone.
What sparked your interest in this area?
“Bone is a fascinating organ. It separates us from creatures like worms. Bone serves many functions including locomotion, protection of other vital organs such as the brain and lungs, storage of vital minerals, structural support and a home for our immune and hematopoietic systems. It continuously renews itself. The skeleton you have now it not the one you had a decade ago or the one you will have a decade from now. Maintenance of a healthy skeleton is important, and various factors, including diet, can have positive or negative effects on bone. Understanding what those factors are allows us to make recommendations to improve bone health and hopefully improve quality of life, especially in older individuals.”
What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of this research?
What do you hope is the outcome of your research?
“I hope that my research will contribute to decreasing osteoporosis and reducing fracture risk, especially in aging individuals.”
Are you working with anyone else in the CPHHS on this project?
“My main collaborator in the CPHHS is Russ Turner. However, I have or am also collaborating with Adam Branscum, Emily Ho, Don Jump, Gianni Maddalozzo and Maret Traber. I’m currently also discussing potential future projects with Norm Hord, Susan Carozza and Ellen Smit.”
Why is research important in the field of human sciences and nutrition?
“It is difficult to solve a problem unless you understand the cause. Research is important for understanding the cause.”
What’s next for you? Do you have any future research projects lined up?
“I plan to continue to focus on the areas of interest outlined above. I also have an exciting project proposed with a collaborator at the University of Illinois to investigate the safety and efficacy of botanical estrogens to improve resilience during aging.”
What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it?
“As a new postdoctoral fellow at Creighton University, I had a conversation with Professor Bob Heaney and asked him what he would study if he were in my place and starting his research career. He said ‘leptin,’ and here I am some 15 years later still studying the effects of leptin on bone and have really come to appreciate fat cells for all that they do.”
What advice would you give to current students and recent alums?
“As a career, find something you love to do and do it well. It will almost never feel like work.”
What are your favorite activities outside of work?
“I am an avid hiker. Oregon is an especially wonderful place for hiking because of the diversity of terrains, including mountains, beaches, forest and desert. One cannot ask for more.”
Click here to learn more from CPHHS researchers in these “Inside the mind of researcher” feature stories.