Q&A with Tom Brenna recipient of the 2020 Herbert J Dutton Award
A brief biography: Tom Brenna, PhD, is Professor of Pediatrics, of Human Nutrition, and of Chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin since 2017, after 28 years as a Professor of Human Nutrition, and of Food Science at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. His group's research is on the chemical, biochemical, metabolic, genetic and ecological aspects of fatty acids. As an undergraduate he worked with the late Bob Jensen at the University of Connecticut, piquing an interest in fatty acids, and went to complete the PhD in Chemistry at Cornell. After four years as a staff engineer at IBM's Technology Campus in Endicott, NY, he was hired as Assistant Professor at Cornell.
His analytical chemistry research pioneered facile methods for the structure elucidation of fatty acid methyl esters, and independently developed some of the first molecular methods for high precision isotope ratio mass spectrometry, work that resulted in more than 30 peer-reviewed papers in Analytical Chemistry and other leading chemistry journals. The research group was among those contributing to the recognition that dietary omega-3 fatty acids are required for proper brain and retinal function in developing infants and, more recently, has been interested in the nutrition and metabolism of branched-chain fatty acids. His work has transformed our understanding of the fatty acid biochemical pathways, and genetics, recognized with the American Society for Nutrition's Osborne and Mendel Award for outstanding contributions to basic research in nutrition (2017) and the ASN's Robert Herman Award for the advancement of clinical nutrition (2013).
1) How did it feel to win the Herbert J Dutton Award?
The award is a recognition of a rotating group of dedicated researchers with whom I had the privilege to interact over the years. They all rightly are gratified by the recognition of our joint efforts.
Referring to his Nobel Prize, the physicist Richard Feynman remarked “The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it.” The recognition of peers confirms not only that people use some and appreciate some of our innovations but regard them as among the important advances.
For me, AOCS, as a society, means a lot to me because it was my first. I recognized very early on that AOCS is a diverse professional society that brings together scientists, engineers, vendors, and businesses whose products and professions have an outsized influence on human health. The Dutton award nomination process revealed deep respect for my contributions that I honestly had not appreciated — the experience was simultaneously humbling and gratifying. These nominations included some from senior members who were leaders when I was a kid. After learning so much from them it is humbling to know that they have learned something from me. To take a well-worn metaphor a step further, as we stand on the shoulders of giants – we occasionally can help the giants see new things themselves.
2) How did you get started in the field that you are studying or working in?
I walked into Robert Jensen’s Lipids Lab at the University of Connecticut – UConn – looking for a work-study job when I was a teenager and sophomore nutrition major in the late 1970s. Bob immediately made me feel like a part of something, a lab family, because he included me in activities, both in and outside of the lab. He and the senior lab members taught me something about lipid chemistry and especially lipid analysis.
Dr. J, as I called him, had high standards for laboratory science. When I was with him, he was in a scientific phase in which he was performing complex chemical synthesis of stereospecific triglycerides for eventual commercial sale. He was often in the lab doing the syntheses himself and would grumble when administrative duties interfered. He was also transitioning from the characterization of the lipids of bovine milk to the lipids of human milk, a field to which he contributed mightily in the last decades of the 20th century.
The AOCS meeting was the very first scientific conference I attended, with Bob. He let me tag along everywhere, including memorable visits to the Supelco hospitality suite where I met Nick Pelick and others who were important to our field. I found everyone to be inviting and professional, and they made me feel welcome.
Bob sent me to Cornell for grad school where I made my way to the Chemistry Dept. There I had the good fortune to work with some of the analytical chemists who made definitive contributions to mass spectrometry, both inorganic and organic, over many decades.
3) Can you tell us more about your current research?
Our research has been at the intersection of many varying fields: nutrition and analytical chemistry, pure and applied nutrition, lipids in foods, in ecology and beyond. I can highlight a couple.
For many years we have been interested in fatty acid nutrition in classes best known and most obscure to the public, the omega-3 and branched-chain fatty acids, respectively. We have worked out the biochemistry, molecular biology, and to a minor degree, the genetics of human biosynthesis of omega-3 DHA and omega-6 arachidonic acid. Our analytical methods have enabled that work as they provide unambiguous structural assignments for fatty acids of minor abundance in complex mixtures.
We have also been among the few groups globally to have studied saturated and monounsaturated branched-chain fatty acids found in milk and other foods, as a nutrient itself. We have recently worked out the identity of genes responsible for their elongation and desaturation and confirmed/identified their structures.
Along other lines, we are advancing the analytical chemistry of fatty acids, developing high sensitivity methods for rapid and positive structure elucidation of unusual unsaturated fatty acids; familiar examples would be conjugated linoleic acids (CLA) but there are many dozens too. We, in human nutrition, have long felt that the cell and animal data support roles for these fatty acids, possibly of high value. Analytical methods are one barrier to this research that we think we are currently making good headway.
4) What challenges have you overcome during your course of study or your career?
From early on through the first half of my career, I was fortunate to find caring mentors and reasonable success in finding support for my work. In the second half of my career, two particular black swan events hit that required near rebuilds of the program – an overnight loss of a research building affecting everyone in my college, and a decade later an accounting snafu affecting mostly our group – that required a fair amount of intestinal fortitude from which to recover. But even in these events, there were silver linings. In one case, we were able to conduct highly impactful human research that likely would not have been possible without a confluence of problems. If I had to do it over again, I would probably want it the same way.
5) What advice can you share on how you have achieved success thus far in your career, whether that be entering a graduate program or a lengthy career in a prestigious position?
Science is advanced chiefly by those obsessed with making sense of the world. First is required a single-minded dedication to good technical measurements. Everything starts there. Second is an obsession for organizing empirical results into models accessible to the human mind – we call those theories. Regularly asking yourself how you know the things you think you know, is paramount for discovering new things that no one knows. How do you know the earth is not flat? Explain the chemical steps leading free fatty acid content to determine, in part, an oil’s smoke point. Work it out from first principles. Third, is an underlying recognition of the primacy of humanity, a desire to apply the best ideas to improve the human condition.
These principles can be exercised in any career path – academics, government/non-profit, industry – though some jobs may not enable it. Two examples from industry come to mind:
My first job out of grad school in 1985 was as a staff engineer-chemist for IBM. To understand what IBM was then, imagine Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft as one company, with similar-sized profits. Many of its alums and business connections developed the computing culture that we have now, even as the company faded from primacy. IBM had a well-developed culture that emphasized inclusiveness and fairness to a far more refined degree than I saw in the academic world. IBM was a good citizen, inside and out. It developed computing from its origins in punch card-controlled textile looms to the mainframe and PC. It emphasized respect for the individual as its first overarching principle. And in my experience, it lived up to it.
A second example was my work with industry on including omega-3 DHA in infant formula. Despite the presence of DHA in all human milks globally, prior to 2001, no North American infant formula contained DHA. With the support of academics, single-minded persons in industry brought that innovation to a reality, navigating the twists and turns of a regulatory landscape with innovation resistors in other parts of the industry, some still evident, who’ve “always done it this way”.
Lessons learned? Excellence can be practiced anywhere and no career path has a monopoly on virtue.
6) How has AOCS helped you in your career?
AOCS brings together a community united around a common and vital class of chemical compounds, oils and fats. The society and its members are the stewards of a vast store of knowledge critical to humanity. AOCS helps me because I know I can find whatever humans know about fats and oils somewhere in the society's orbit – journals, books, colleagues.