The internationally renowned scientist leads Texas Tech’s Obesity Research Institute.
In some ways, Naïma Moustaïd-Moussa's story is the epitome of the American dream. Born in Morocco, the second of 17 children to parents without even an elementary education, she worked hard and didn't give up. She became a first-generation college student, then earned her master's degree and doctorate from the University of Paris P & M Curie, now the Sorbonne University. Taking a leap of faith, she moved to the U.S. for a postdoctoral research position at the Harvard School of Public Health and later built her own research program from the ground up.
Since arriving at Texas Tech University in 2012 as a Senior Strategic Hire, she's aided in the evolution of nutrition into a prolific department that now conducts groundbreaking science, and simultaneously bolstered the university's national and international reputation in nutrigenomics and obesity research. And, she emphasizes, she couldn't have done it without the support of many people along the way.
For her outstanding contributions, Moustaïd-Moussa, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and founding director of Texas Tech's Obesity Research Institute, recently was named a Horn Distinguished Professor, the highest honor given to a Texas Tech faculty member.
What does it mean to you to be named a Horn Professor?
It's a huge honor and a prestigious award with which to be recognized. To me, that means I've made some important contributions in research and education, and I am very honored, humbled and grateful. But also, this award is not just for me or a recognition for just my own my work; it's for everyone who contributed to who I am or what I've achieved – primarily, my lab members, the ones here and also at the University of Tennessee (UT) where I was before, my first faculty position. I was there for 19 years, so it formed the foundation for the work we have continued for the past eight years at Texas Tech. Our lab trains many undergraduate students each year – currently we have 14 in my lab – and many graduate students, of whom nine completed doctorates and two completed master's degrees. Several postdocs and research faculty served as co-mentors for these students.
I am very grateful for every lab member's contributions, especially my current lab manager, Shane Scoggin, who helps run our lab, oversee compliance and lead new lab members' training. Especially as my responsibilities increased over the years, I'm not in the lab every day doing all those experiments. I provide significant guidance and mentoring on a regular weekly basis, but it's really the lab members who are making it happen, not only by doing experiments but also through their own intellectual contributions to our research program.
Another important factor to highlight is the support of my family, my husband, Hanna Moussa who is an assistant professor in mechanical engineering, and our three children, who have been very understanding of the demanding nature of research. They are my champions! Sometimes I have to stay late at work to complete a project or work with students, or on deadlines. My kids, even when they were young, would ask, "Do you have a grant to write, mommy?" They know very well my lab family and students through regular parties we used to host, before the pandemic. So yes, my husband and kids have been very supportive and an integral part of my success. Of course, I would not be where I am without my parents who supported my education.
I'm a first-generation college student. My parents didn't have any education, not even elementary school, but they somehow, fortunately, valued education. I'm originally from the South of Morocco and, at the time, many other family members didn't send their daughters to school. I especially acknowledge my father, because he was the head of the family, and really pushed for our education; but my parents both really valued education for boys and girls equally. I appreciated that, and I think they catalyzed that start that got me where I am now.
There are lots of people to thank, who helped and supported me along the way, but of course, I worked very hard, too. You have to have some foundation and support to get going, and my parents started that. Work ethic is very critical, and so is the continuous family support (from parents to husband to children). And last but not least, I owe a lot to my current and former mentors, because they also helped me learn how to become a professional, persevere and believe in myself. They taught me research, teaching and best practices, connected me with many peers and other mentors, and many became great friends.
What brought you to Texas Tech originally?
Honestly, I didn't know Lubbock or Texas Tech that well. Part of it may be because I got my degree from outside the U.S. I was at UT for 19 years. I was a full professor already and co-director of the UT Obesity Research Center, so I really was not planning to leave, until the Dean's Office of Texas Tech's College of Human Sciences approached me. Former Dean Linda Hoover (now retired) charged a few people to find established researchers in nutrition and obesity, but specifically in nutrition, because at that time, we were not a department; we were part of the nutrition, hospitality and retailing department. Dean Hoover was a registered dietitian as well, so she knew the field of nutrition, and she really wanted Texas Tech to have a strong nutrition program and department.
I was approached, in fact, first by Sara Dodd at an Obesity Society conference, and we just talked. I said, "Well, I'll think about it." And I searched and thought, "I don't want to go to Texas, it's too big, etc." Sara followed up, then Dean Hoover called me. At that point, I talked to my husband: "I think I need to give it a try and explore, because when people reach out to you, that means they really want you and are seriously considering you." Dean Hoover asked me to apply but I said I did not want to apply until I was sure that I would consider moving, so she said, "Why don't you come for a visit?" I am glad I did, and I really liked Dean Hoover, I loved Kitty Harris, who has now left Texas Tech; Lynn Huffman, Debra Reed – great women leaders and educators, all of them have retired. Sara and Tim Dodd, who is now our dean, showed us around and took us to visit schools for the kids during one of my visits with my husband. I just said, "Wow, this is a great place, great university facilities, great people." They have treated me very well, and I have not regretted it. It's been a good home for us – for me, for my kids and my husband, and I was able to recruit excellent students, postdocs and research faculty into my lab.
What factors originally led you to becoming interested in nutrition, diabetes and
Surprisingly, it was neither diabetes, nor obesity for sure, maybe more the nutrition and biochemistry aspects. I actually started my undergrad studies in Morocco. At that time, you could not specialize, so we had biology and geology. I didn't really like geology. It was not for me. Fortunately, we had family in France, and because Morocco was previously a French colony, I was able to transfer my courses. So, I finished my undergrad in physiology and cell biology at the University of Paris. At that time, one topic that interested me was lipid biochemistry. I always was fascinated with these very complex molecules: how they change, how they can modify your membranes and your health. So, after I finished my undergrad, my goal was to work in a lipid biochemistry lab. I interviewed at some labs, and one of them that was doing a lot of research with lipids was a nutrition and obesity lab. That's really how it started.
My first research project was to work on fat cells. That started everything. I've never left fat cells since then. I did my dissertation research on fat cell development and how hormones affect it. Then, I moved to Boston in late 1989, and completed a postdoc in nutrition at Havard University's School of Public Health. At that time, genetics and molecular biology tools were expanding and new methods such as the polymerase chain reaction were developing. My main interest was to learn cloning of genes involved in fat metabolism to understand how they respond at the molecular level to nutrients and hormones.
In the early and mid-1990s, the prevalence of metabolic diseases (including obesity and diabetes) was sharply increasing. We started to understand that one big issue related to obesity is adipose tissue expansion and, later on, how that was leading to the fat tissue becoming inflamed. By now, it is well established that reducing this inflammation greatly improves the quality of adipose tissue and overall metabolic health, and our lab significantly contributed to the knowledge in this area. As a typical diet rich in fruits and vegetables contains many antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, we started looking into some of those compounds and whether they can reduce adipose tissue inflammation and overall body inflammation in obesity.
Currently, several projects in our lab focus on identifying mechanisms by which dietary bioactive compounds protect against metabolic diseases, breast cancer or Alzheimer's disease. Most of our lab work has been on fish oil, which has potential anti-inflammatory and triglyceride lowering effects, but we're also using tart cherry, which is rich in antioxidants, anthocyanins as well, and curcumin among other dietary compounds – so we are targeting plants, botanicals, fruits and their dietary components, especially phytochemicals and polyphenols, which already have antioxidant or anti-inflammatory properties. We use them to reduce inflammation, which helps reduce obesity, and our goal is to understand how these compounds work, how they affect cell functions and whole body metabolic responses and what the effective doses are for optimal health. This research not only helps develop science-based dietary recommendations but may also help find new target pathways that others, maybe pharmaceutical companies, would be interested in further developing and targeting for disease therapies.
What have been your most rewarding experiences at Texas Tech?
I would have to start with the students again – just seeing my students succeed. Many have gone on to faculty positions at other universities. Some of those who graduated from my lab at Texas Tech are now faculty members – Monique LeMieux at Texas Woman's University, Nadeeja Wijayatunga at the University of Mississippi, and Kembra Albracht-Shulte, who will join the Texas Tech Department of Kinesiology & Sport Management in the fall – and postdocs, like Mandana Pahlavani at the University of Texas Southwestern, Kalhara Menikdiwela here at Texas Tech and Rasha Fahmida at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC). Two other former Texas Tech doctoral students, Arwa Aljawadi and Shasika Jayarathne, went to other research/development positions.
Our lab research faculty, postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students have won national and international awards. Two of our graduate students won first place for the Outstanding Dissertation Award in Biological and Life Sciences from the Graduate School in 2017 and 2019. A few others won awards from the American Society for Nutrition, the Obesity Society, the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids & Lipids, etc. They also won predoctoral and postdoc fellowships from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – there have been three such awards in our lab. It's a big deal, as these fellowships are highly competitive.
To give a few other examples: One undergraduate student, Emily Miller, graduated last year with honors, completed an Honors thesis and was immediately hired into a post-baccalaureate position at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and is gaining very unique experiences at the NIH Clinical Center that prepares her well to move into medical school. To me, that's a huge achievement; she has an undergraduate degree and she's getting this great experience in a very competitive institution. Another student, Lexie Harlan, who also completed her Honors thesis last year, is completing a master's of public health at TTUHSC then heading into medical school.
A couple other students were accepted into the TTUHSC School of Nursing and one of them, Samantha Gonzalez, is already practicing; she has won a national award for her undergraduate research. Another student, Boontharick Sopontammarak, is now at an osteopathic medicine school; she, too, completed an Honors thesis and published her research as its first author. Many others have entered or completed dietetics, medical, dental or other professional schools; unfortunately I cannot list all of them here. Our undergraduates have all done very well publishing their work as first authors or coauthors. So, just seeing their success, published papers, getting positions, awards, getting out there, I think that's probably the most rewarding thing for me as a researcher.
I also find it gratifying to share my knowledge through teaching, in or outside the classroom. When I started at UT, I had never taught. I came as a pure researcher. As a result, I never thought I would like teaching, but once I started engaging with students in the classroom and in the lab, I ended up becoming a very passionate teacher, I love it. It's very rewarding when my students come and say, "I learned so much in the class. I didn't know this, and this is how I applied this information." They really appreciate it.
The other rewards are in the research and teaching collaborations. We have really great people at Texas Tech and TTUHSC, but of course, you have to find the collaborators for whom you have an affinity to work with, and it doesn't always work; both the type of work, approach to work and personalities have to be compatible. Especially through the Obesity Research Institute, we really developed some great teams of collaborators and lots of great people, some are in our college, but most actually from outside our college in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, in the College of Arts & Sciences, the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, in departments including animal and food sciences, agricultural economics, veterinary sciences, plant and soil science, biology, chemical and mechanical engineering among others at Texas Tech and also at the TTUHSC.
I also get to do some community research, outreach and engagement. Being a basic scientist, you don't learn those things unless you really go out of the lab, beyond bench work, so I became really interested in also being engaged in the community. Part of my appointment at UT was also through UT Extension. In Lubbock, I participate in some school nutrition-education programs to improve body image and healthy eating with other college of Human Sciences faculty, so it's been really good to apply in real life the research we do and the knowledge we learn.
Who has been the greatest influence on your research and teaching?
On the research side, specifically, it started with my mentors in France, especially Marcelle Lavau, who was director of the INSERM unit where I did my doctoral research – INSERM is like the NIH or USDA research centers or labs. The way she teaches, the way she mentors you, you don't feel like she's the boss. She really works alongside you and motivates you. I have had a lot of great mentors, but her style just was very different. At the early stage of my doctoral research, my mentor moved to another position, so Marcelle along with another lab director, Annie Quignard-Boulange, stepped in to help me. Not many people do that, and especially since Marcelle was the director of the whole lab, it was like the dean of a research institution stepping in to help. Annie also was a great mentor and helped me through my doctoral work and beyond. We stayed in touch and then, after I moved to the U.S., we reconnected and even collaborated on some projects.
There were many other mentors I met when I moved to the U.S. who really took me under their wing and taught me a lot about U.S. academic institutions, teaching and what conferences to go to here; networking, introducing me to people; and, also, you learn from them the rigor of research and about collaborations.
What have been some of the most important lessons you've learned along the way?
Well, one is really persistence and patience. I remember when I was a postdoc who just came here. My English was not good because I did all my education in French, and I wrote my dissertation in French. So, although I was a reading English articles for my research, it's not the same when you don't practice speaking that language. And in Boston, too, the accent is very different, so at the end of the day, I had headaches. I thought, "How am I ever going to learn English?" But you know, I just turned on the TV and listened to news, read and attended meetings at the Harvard International Office to improve speaking skills – and I stayed away from Arabic- or French-speaking folks for a while so I could work on English first and master it.
Also, there is never a substitute for great work ethic and respect of others; I learned that from my parents as well. It doesn't matter what you want to become or what you want to do, you have to do it right. I always emphasize to students the importance of rigor and dedication. It takes being honest and building trust, those are very important. I tell my undergraduate students, I don't want you to show me just positive data. We don't know the answer – this is why we're doing research. So, just try your best, and do it over again. And if that's what it is, even if that's not how you learned it, then let's scratch our heads and find out why it is different from what others found. Maybe they're wrong, or maybe we made a mistake.
The other thing is respect of others and appreciation for all fields, because I know people can get very critical of others – basic scientists versus social scientists or vice versa. Just respect that each has their own expertise and everybody contributes. Respect for all differences – culturally or academically – is very critical. You learn that when you do interdisciplinary collaborations; you get to appreciate differences, whether it's cultural or disciplinary.
The other thing is, it pays off to be ambitious and to believe in yourself. As I mentioned, I didn't have a role model. I'm No. 2 of 17 children in my family. So, you really have to learn things your own way. But if you're persistent, work hard and believe in yourself, you can do it. The flip side of that is, you cannot do it by yourself – you have to have support. For me, if my husband was not supportive, I may not have been able to achieve all I did, while raising three kids. On the days I have a deadline, someone has to take care of the kids and has to make dinner. Having that kind of support is very important, so part of it is the family and part of it is the mentors.
What are the most important lessons you'd like to pass on to students?
The same ones: to believe in yourself and to work hard, and do so with respect and ethically, because it doesn't come easy.
Especially being a woman and being a minority, the difficulties are not just stories we hear; it's true. In a previous institution where I was, I was invited to attend a workshop at the National Academy of Sciences Food and Nutrition Board. I was so excited, so I went to my chair at the time and said, "I got this email invitation to attend this workshop." He said, "Oh, you're too junior, maybe someone else should go." I'd been there just five years or so and had just been promoted to associate. I said, "Why? They were not invited. I was invited, and I was excited to share the news." But after that, I never told him anything else. I said, "OK, I'm going to keep it to myself," and I found a mentor in another department who was more supportive. So, you have to be resilient and just keep going, but you also need to find good mentors who can support you. I've been fortunate; I haven't had a lot of issues, but there were things like that that do happen.
Is there anything else you'd like to say?
I would like to especially thank Dr. Eric Hequet for his continuing support over my years at Texas Tech – he is a fellow Horn Professor and Associate Vice President for Research in the Office of Research & Innovation.
Above all, it's an honor to be recognized, and I'm really happy and privileged. It is a special honor because I am the first Horn Professor in the College of Human Sciences, and I thank Dean Tim Dodd for his support and nomination.