Dr. Erin Rees Clayton could tell you how nutrients are metabolized on the molecular level, or how poverty and social disparity affect health outcomes across populations.
She has studied chemistry, molecular biology, genetics, and epidemiology–conducting research in each area, teaching others how to pursue their own research interests, and maintaining a passion for taking new information out into the world to help the greatest number of people.
As GFI’s Scientific Foundations Liaison, Erin is using her wealth of knowledge to educate large grant-making institutions on the value of R&D in plant-based foods and “clean meat” (meat produced through cellular agriculture), for the sake of the planet, people, animals, and global public health.
Erin sat down with me (Emily Byrd, communications manager here!) to explain why she’s decided to use her considerable talents to fix our broken food system.
GFI: How did you first hear about The Good Food Institute?
Erin: I’m not exactly sure, but I’ve actually been reading GFI’s blogs as my bedtime reading for some months now, and they opened my eyes to a lot of problems I hadn’t spent much time thinking about previously. As I read more and more, I became increasingly excited about the work GFI was doing and it got to the point where I felt I was standing on the sidelines and just wanted yell, “Okay coach, put me in! Let me help the team!” In many ways, I can’t imagine a more perfect fit for my background, experiences, and interests!
GFI: Tell me more about that background! You’ve done so much—is there a common thread?
Erin: I’ve always been interested in asking questions and trying to figure things out. One of the first ways I began exploring the world this way was through chemistry, because it gave me the tools to understand things at the most fundamental, molecular level. So I majored in chemistry in undergrad, but I also took full advantage of my liberal arts education and also minored in English Literature. There’s always been a side of me that enjoys that communicative aspect. I have an interest in seeking out answers but also in taking the next step, which is finding the best way to explain those solutions to others and then apply them to solve problems.
GFI: So that desire led you to look at chemistry from an applied, human-centric perspective?
Erin: Exactly, so I shifted to more of a biological focus for my Ph.D. at Duke, which was in molecular genetics. My dissertation research was actually one of the first things that got me intellectualizing and thinking more about nutrition, because the research I did focused on copper metabolism.
GFI: Copper metabolism? What a coincidence. I thought very seriously about getting a Ph.D. in copper metabolism.
Erin: I know, I know—most people think of pennies or electrical wires when they think of copper. But just as iron is an essential nutrient for the human diet, we also need copper! So that was my first foray into nutrition from a scientific perspective. As I was about to finish my PhD, the opportunity arose to visit the Philippines as part of a medical mission trip to hold free health screenings and clinics around the city of Manila for three weeks. That experience gave me a new sense of urgency about applying my training and figuring out how to communicate scientific and medical information to people, because it’s not that useful if it just stays in the lab.
GFI: Okay, so I’m starting to see the evolution here from lab-bench to health advocate.
Erin: It was really a pivotal point for me. When I returned I decided to go back for even more schooling, which of course drove my family crazy, but they were supportive. I then got my Masters of Public Health in Epidemiology [at the University of Michigan].
[Note: Epidemiology is the field where experts work to understand the patterns and causes of diseases on a population level]
After that, my research really focused on trying to understand how social factors such as income and education, as well as the conditions in a person’s physical environment, lead to physical health consequences. Some of my research included nutritional intervention and education programs as well. This was research that really had that applied aspect that excites me, where I could see the direct implications of what I was doing and how that could impact policy and governmental and corporate decision making.
GFI: What was your introduction to the effects of animal agriculture as a factor in nutrition and public health?
Erin: Obviously from a public health perspective there’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest that diets high in animal protein are leading to a lot of chronic health problems. This is made even more evident by looking at developing countries and their rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which are skyrocketing as they transition to a more Westernized diet that’s heavy in animal products.
GFI: It really is such a monumental, global problem. What makes it personal to you?
Erin: I’ve been trained to have a public health focus, but from more of a personal interest and belief, being a mom of two young kids really made me ask some questions I hadn’t considered before. I’ve been wondering more about what kind of world I’ll be leaving behind and what my kids are going to be dealing with when they’re my age. When I look at the way the vast majority of food is produced and processed in our country, I wonder how we got here?
GFI: It is pretty shocking how bad things have become. Could you tell me more about how you plan to improve the way food is produced through your role as GFI’s Scientific Foundations Liaison?
Erin: Definitely. The ultimate goal of my position is to increase the number of academic researchers and entrepreneurs that are working in these fields and increase funding opportunities for them. To improve the food system, we need all of these professionals to see plant-based and clean meat technology as an area that’s ripe for investigation and further development.
And there are a lot of funding organizations that are focused on issues like environmental degradation and sustainability as well as human health and animal welfare. My job is to make them aware that cellular agriculture and plant-based-based R&D are a way to address those issues.
GFI: It really does seem like a magic bullet in some ways!
Erin: One of the greatest things about these fields is that I don’t see any other processes, products, or solutions that can address so many urgent problems at once. So from a grant writer’s perspective, that’s kind of a dream, right?
GFI: A dream for many people who are interested in improving the world, definitely! Speaking of which, what is one recent development in the good-food space that you think will have a world-changing impact?
Erin: The chemist in me is fascinated with the way scientists and food researchers are breaking down complex food tastes and smells into their molecular components. This understanding is leading to the development of plant-based meat alternatives that are starting to be so similar to animal meat that I really think they can have widespread appeal.
GFI: And what’s one area of food-tech you’re most excited about seeing new developments in?
Erin: Animals, like people, have a whole vasculature dedicated to nourishing body tissues and removing waste products as cells divide and grow. I can’t wait to see what creative solutions are found for nourishing the cells scientists are using to grow clean meat products so that larger and denser meat products are able to be developed.
GFI: So what exactly do you do when you’re not changing the world? What are your hobbies?
Erin: Reading has always been an outlet for me. I love to get lost in a good book. I also enjoy spending time outdoors. With two young kids, we spend a lot of time exploring the outdoors and creating all sorts of backyard adventures!
GFI: Okay, and favorite food? And don’t say copper.
Erin: Well, you may be glad to know that leafy greens, legumes, and nuts are all good sources of dietary copper! As for my favorite foods, I’d have to say strawberries, carrots picked straight out of our garden, and grilled portobello mushroom burgers topped with red onions and zucchini. Yum!
GFI: Yum indeed! Thanks for taking the time, Erin, now get back to changing the world, please! I think we might be getting short on time!