Texas Tech University

First-Generation College Student Turned Obesity Expert

Ashlyn Grotegut

March 20, 2023

Naïma Moustaïd-Moussa

Naïma Moustaïd-Moussa uses research to attack obesity and its negative effects on the body.

Every year, March is observed as Women's History Month. This year, we're telling the stories of extraordinary women at Texas Tech. They are making history through their research, discoveries, tenacity and scholarship. These Red Raiders not only help us commemorate the past, but they're blazing a trail toward the future.

When Naïma Moustaïd-Moussa goes to a gathering, chances are she will bring dried tart cherries. 

Not because it is a fan-favorite food. Rather, for the same reason she regularly shares her Mediterranean diet with family and friends. Or, the three decades she has spent researching nutrition and obesity.

She genuinely cares for the well-being of others. 

“I like to promote what we believe is beneficial, based on scientific evidence,” Moustaïd-Moussa said. “It's been really good to apply the research we do and the knowledge we learn in real life.”

Moustaïd-Moussa shares her wisdom as a Horn Distinguished Professor in the College of Human Sciences, director of the Nutrigenomics, Inflammation and Obesity Research (NIOR) Laboratory in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and the founding director of the Obesity Research Institute (ORI) at Texas Tech University

Her research focuses on adipocyte biology; the role of fat cell inflammation in metabolic disorders; the link between obesity and other chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and breast cancer; and how dietary bioactive food and plant components reduce inflammation and insulin resistance, a common feature among these diseases.  

“Our goal is to find ways to reduce obesity, a very complex disease,” she said. “We would like to either prevent it, reverse it if it's already there or at least reduce it not for cosmetic reasons but because that would lessen most other negative metabolic effects on the body.”

It is not by chance this internationally renowned scientist found herself on the Texas Tech campus. After she spent 19 years at the University of Tennessee, she was recruited in fall 2012 as a senior strategic hire in nutrition and obesity.

Nearly nine years later, she received her title of Horn Distinguished Professor: the highest honor given to a Texas Tech faculty member, and the first recipient within the College of Human Sciences.

“Dr. Moustaïd-Moussa serves as an inspiration to all students in the College of Human Sciences and at Texas Tech University,” said college dean Tim Dodd, who nominated her for the honor. “Her passionate drive to improve and enhance the human condition through her research on nutrition and obesity has had a tremendous impact not only on students and faculty, but people around the world. We are so grateful for her creativity and innovation in the field, as well as her ability to make a positive impact on our students through her mentorship and leadership.”

Driven by Curiosity 

In a way, Moustaïd-Moussa was meant to lead as the second of 17 children born to her parents in Morocco.

“You really have to learn things your own way,” Moustaïd-Moussa said. “But if you're persistent, work hard and believe in yourself, you can do it.”

Neither her mother nor father had an elementary education, but they encouraged Moustaïd-Moussa and her siblings to become first-generation college students. 

“They, fortunately, valued education,” she said. “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.”

Despite those odds, she began her undergraduate studies in biology and geology in Rabat, Morocco at Mohamed V University. Then, she transferred to what is now the University of Paris-Saclay to finish her undergraduate in physiology and cell biology.

“I was initially just fascinated by the biochemistry of lipids,” Moustaïd-Moussa said. “These are very complex molecules.”

Moustaïd-Moussa wanted to learn more about how lipids change, so she sought to find a health and biomedical research lab to conduct her graduate research and expand her knowledge in lipids. 

Her pursuit of this knowledge led her to earn her master's degree and doctorate in endocrinology from what is now Sorbonne University.  

“That's how I ended up in a lab that was studying genetics of obesity,” Moustaïd-Moussa said. “I started working on fat cells in culture, treating them with different hormones or dietary interventions to see how their metabolism and function changes and how they expand and accumulate triglycerides.”

In Moustaïd-Moussa's words, “that started everything.” She has never stopped observing fat cells since. 

And after she moved to the United States to start a postdoctoral research position at the Harvard School of Public Health in 1990, she discovered a need for her work more than ever. 

“At that time, obesity started and continued rising,” Moustaïd-Moussa said. “So, it was clearly becoming an epidemic problem.”

A Mission to Understand Obesity 

Moustaïd-Moussa met this problem head-on as she began to conduct research on college campuses, with many tests run on cells, mice and clinical samples (human fat). Her findings helped her and other researchers in this area come to understand obesity as a disease, even though the American Medical Association recognized it as so only a decade ago. 

“It's not just a condition, per se,” she said. “You don't develop obesity just because you overeat or don't exercise. Of course, those are very important to maintain energy balance, but there could be genetic and/or environmental reasons and their interactions that exacerbate obesity. It's really very complex.”

In all its complexity, obesity affects 100.1 million (41.9%) adults and 14.7 million (19.7%) children in the United States, and accounts for approximately $147 billion in annual health care costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While obesity was considered mainly a United States issue in the 1980s, Moustaïd-Moussa has watched it expand worldwide. 

“Even in countries where you have malnutrition, you also encounter high prevalence of obesity and its problems,” she said. 

This is devastating to Moustaïd-Moussa because she knows obesity puts people at risk for diabetes, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's disease among many others. 

“I think it's even more relevant now to try to understand what's going on,” she said. “What triggers obesity? How can we intervene and how can we prevent it?”

Moustaïd-Moussa works to answer these questions through several initiatives, such as her analysis into the role of fat cells on body regulation. Her findings, along with those of other obesity researchers, show there are some beneficial compounds that fat tissue produces. However, as fat cells (adipocytes) expand, they release hormones and substances, some of which can be harmful when produced in excess within the body.

“We're targeting the adipose (fat) tissue to understand not only how it expands in obesity, but how it affects the functions of other organs like the liver, muscle and brain, and how it can lead to diabetes, heart or Alzheimer's diseases and even cancer,” she said. 

Obesity can be treated through bariatric surgery or with FDA approved medications, especially those that target the brain to suppress appetite. But Moustaïd-Moussa has taken different and complementary approaches: pharmacological and dietary interventions that affect the fat tissue and other peripheral organs. 

Along with the help from students in her NIOR Lab, she has discovered the benefits of bioactive compounds from food, such as curcumin, a yellow pigment found primarily in turmeric, as well as tart cherries and fish oil

Both fish oil and tart cherries contain compounds that can reduce inflammation of “bad” inflamed white fat cells that could produce substances that negatively impact liver or muscle function. Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil can also activate the “good” fat – called brown fat – which is full of mitochondria that burns calories especially from fat and produces heat. Moustaïd-Moussa and her team hypothesize fish, fish oil and tart cherries could be even more beneficial when consumed together. 

"While obesity is a complex and heterogeneous disease that must be addressed from multiple angles like lifestyle and behavior interventions, medications and surgery when necessary, one can also improve the health of those suffering from obesity through simple dietary modifications to reduce caloric intake and the addition of safe dietary components like fish, fish oil and tart cherries that possess antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties," she said.

She has found that fish oil also can increase energy expenditure and improve glucose clearance in animal models, reducing the impact of obesity on diabetes and heart disease, and can lessen the impact of fat cells on breast cancer cells in cell culture studies. 

Most recently, her lab tested how fish oil could affect Alzheimer's disease. While this research is primarily done on cell and animal models, it provides foundation for future research and interventions in human subjects. 

“We know that Alzheimer's is linked to brain inflammation called neuroinflammation,” Moustaïd-Moussa said. “So, our hypothesis is once you reduce fat tissue and systemic (bloodstream) inflammation with fish oil, this will also help reduce inflammation in the brain."

As she seeks to understand how these compounds work to affect cell functions and whole-body metabolic responses and what the effective doses are for optimal health, Moustaïd-Moussa hopes to contribute significant knowledge in this area that will impact generations to come. 

 “This research may not only help develop science-based dietary recommendations, but it will also help find new target pathways that others, maybe pharmaceutical companies, would be interested in further developing and targeting for disease therapies,” she said. 

Overcoming Obstacles 

These accomplishments are just a sampling of Moustaïd-Moussa's success that would not have been possible had she quit when the going got tough. 

For one, when she first came to the United States as a postdoc (a training-focused position available to those who obtained a doctorate) she had limited English communication skills. 

“I did all my education in Arabic and French in Morocco, and I wrote my dissertation in French,” she said. “So, although I was reading English articles for my research, and had published papers in English from my doctoral studies, I did not have many opportunities to practice speaking English. And in Boston, where I did my postdoc training, the accent was very different and challenging at first. 

“So, at the end of the day, I used to have headaches from trying to translate everything in my head when speaking to other lab members. I thought, ‘How am I ever going to learn English?'”

Through persistence, patience, listening to the news, reading newspapers and scientific papers and attending group discussion meetings at the Harvard International Office, she forged a way to improve her speaking skills. 

“I intentionally stayed away from Arabic or French-speaking folks for a while when I first arrived in Boston so I could work on English first and master it,” Moustaïd-Moussa said. 

Once past her language barrier, Moustaïd-Moussa found that while hard work leads to progress and promotion in academia, there were still roadblocks along the way. 

“I have witnessed many challenges for women in general, and especially women of color," Moustaïd-Moussa said. "This is especially true in the basic sciences, where there were not many women when I joined academia as faculty, and there were even fewer minorities to relate to and network with.”

In instances where Moustaïd-Moussa felt a lack of support, she made sure to find it through other experienced women scientists who became her mentors. 

“You have to be resilient, believe in yourself and just keep going, but you also need to find good mentors who can support you,” she said. “I've been fortunate; I haven't had a lot of issues, but I have encountered quite a few who struggled, especially if they did not have a good support group or mentors.”

Fortunately, one group Moustaïd-Moussa could always count on was her “champions” at home: her husband and three children. Plus, of course, her parents and extended family in Morocco who have always been there for her no matter their distance apart. 

“Sometimes I have to stay late at work to complete a project or work with students, or on deadlines,” she said. “My kids, even when they were young, would ask, ‘Do you have a grant to write, mommy?' So yes, my husband and kids have been very supportive and an integral part of my success. 

“My husband, Hanna Moussa, specifically. He is also a scientist and loves cooking and helping the kids with their homework. He has always been supportive for the past 30 years.”

Recognizing Her Impact 

And Moustaïd-Moussa's dedication pays off. She has built a strong global reputation through collaborations with researchers at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil on metabolic effects of fish oil. She also collaborated with scientists at the Qatar Biomedical and Computing Research Institutes and Hamad Bin Khalifa University to examine the role of heat shock proteins in obesity and diabetes. 

In 2017, the government of Sri Lanka invited her to assist with developing an International Research Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Regional Research Center. A few years later, she was one of the few United States scientists invited by the Korean Academy of Science and Technology to participate in the 20th Frontier Scientists Workshop on Bioactive Compounds, Nanoparticle in Hawaii. 

But her outreach has even been local, as she has teamed up with other faculty members to provide nutrition education to the community along with the Talkington School for Young Women Leaders. 

In addition, she trained to become a Certified Master Wellness Volunteer through her strong partnership with the Family and Community Health unit of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Their bond was further strengthened during a currently funded grant from the USDA Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates Program in which students train with Texas Tech faculty to research foods, nutrition, and agriculture. They can also participate in summer internships with AgriLife County Extension agents.

“Through this training program, some of the students will work with children from underserved populations at the South Plains Food Bank, or other youth and adult community centers in Lubbock served by AgriLife, to help them understand what a healthy lifestyle is,” she said. “They teach them basic nutrition knowledge, cooking skills, and even gardening skills they learned from Extension educators.” 

In 2013, Moustaïd-Moussa founded the Obesity Research Cluster, now known as the Obesity Research Institute, as a central collaborative platform for researchers interested in obesity and chronic diseases, from Texas Tech, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) Lubbock, and other Texas Tech University System campuses. She did this not because her job required her to, but because of her belief that innovative collaborations and strategic partnerships are critical to advance the understanding of a disease as complex as obesity. Moustaid-Moussa co-directs the ORI with Jannette Dufour of TTUHSC Lubbock.  

“Hopefully we will have some significant impact in reducing the burden of these diseases by the time I retire from all the research that is going on here, nationally, and globally,” Moustaïd-Moussa said with a laugh. 

Her achievements do not stop there. Moustaïd-Moussa is the co-editor of two nutrition-related books and the co-inventor of several patents. She has earned countless awards and honors, including a Fulbright Scholarship and Pfizer Nutritional Sciences Consumer Healthcare Award from the American Society for Nutrition (where she also served on the Board of Directors). She is fellow of two professional associations (The Obesity Society and the American Heart Association), served on the National Institutes of Health peer review study sections and was appointed to the Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine last year. 

She also received two mentoring awards from Texas Tech: the Nancy J. Bell Graduate Excellence in Mentoring Award from the Graduate School, and the Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award from the Center for Transformative Undergraduate Experiences

“I owe a lot to my current and former mentors, because they helped me learn how to navigate academia, become a professional, persevere and believe in myself,” she recalled. “They taught me research, teaching and best practices, connected me with many peers and other mentors, and many became great friends.

Paying It Forward 

With a nod to those who inspired and built her up, Moustaïd-Moussa makes sure she carries on a similar legacy for her undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom have gone on to medical or other professional schools, pursued graduate or postdoctoral studies, or became faculty, department heads, and research leaders at Texas Tech or other government, state or private institutions.  

One of the many who consider her a mentor is Shadi Nejat, a doctoral candidate with her NIOR Lab. 

“From the very beginning, she was very positive, open and welcoming,” Nejat said. “She really commended me for even wanting to pursue a graduate degree after I had already done that. So, she kind of took me on as a protege from day one.”

Nejat is a nontraditional student in the sense that she had practiced as a chiropractor for more than 12 years before she began to question why so many of her patients were suffering from obesity-related complications. 

She decided to pursue answers to her questions in 2019 by continuing her education, and she knew just who could help her. 

“The first person that popped into my mind was Dr. Naïma,” Nejat said. “I had done clinical work, and I was good with that. But I needed experience with conducting research, writing manuscripts, writing proposals and things like that.”

Nejat knew Moustaïd-Moussa was not only a world-renowned scientist in the field of obesity, but an educator who invests in her students. 

“When I go to her with any ideas about how to submit for this award or grant, even though it's a lot of work and commitment on her part, she puts her heart and soul into it,” Nejat said. “I'm not just another student to her. She truly cares, and I've seen that time and time again.”

Nejat is fascinated by how Moustaïd-Moussa stays connected not only with her, but to all 20 of her NIOR Lab members. 

“She knows what everyone's doing: what we're working on, our projects and what we can do to make them better,” Nejat said. “I think that really speaks to her devotion to her work and the caliber of individual she is.”

As Nejat plans to switch her profession and become a faculty member one day, she feels fortunate to have found the perfect role model in Moustaïd-Moussa. 

“If I ended up being a fraction of who she is, I would consider myself very successful,” Nejat said. “In anything and everything she does, she excels. So with all confidence, I would follow in her footsteps in anything and everything: as an educator, mother, scientist and just as a person.”

Those words feel almost surreal to Moustaïd-Moussa. She never intended to become an educator, and when the opportunity arose, she did not expect to enjoy it. 

“Once I started engaging with students in the classroom and in the lab, I ended up becoming a very passionate teacher,” she said. “It's very rewarding when my students stay in touch or come and say, ‘I learned so much in this class. I didn't know this, and this is how I applied this information.'” 

So when Moustaïd-Moussa is asked about her most rewarding experiences, her answer is not her achievements as a researcher.

What she enjoys most is seeing her students succeed and celebrating them, maybe even over a bowl of dried tart cherries. 

“All the great students and postdocs we get are a very important part of this work, because I am not in the lab or in the animal facility every day,” she said. “The lab members who are carrying the load make us proud. They're making an impact in the world.”