Blending Food, Environment, and Global Health into Toxicology, Researcher Finds Distinctive Niche Rewarding
After volunteering with the Peace Corps in Nepal, Dr. Elizabeth Ryan found herself pondering her next steps. How could she advance herself in the sciences while still helping to address critical problems of the developing world? Through her outreach work in community forestry, food security, and hygiene, she was all too aware of the many challenges faced by Third World nations, as well as the need for new strategies to meet those challenges.
Dr. Ryan grew up with an awareness of the environment as a source of food, and an appreciation for the ecosystems of plants and animals. As an undergraduate student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio (on a gymnastics scholarship), she majored in environmental science and biology, and was involved in plant-based and avian research. After her time in the Peace Corps, she returned to the United States and took a position with Hawk Watch International – developing educational programs that reveal and appreciate raptors as environmental indicators of human health, particularly with regards to exposures to hazardous chemical compounds. Her work there sparked an interest in toxicology, particularly immunotoxicology which looks at toxicant effects on the immune system. She then attended the University of Rochester where she received her master’s degree and PhD in molecular and environmental medicine.
“In my PhD work, our laboratory studied NSAIDS and the effects on the normal immune response, and how use of these common drugs may impact the efficacy of the HPV vaccine,” said Dr. Ryan, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences. “We also studied drugs such as Celebrex and Vioxx at a time when concerns regarding safety were exploding. With my postdoc, I received training in human clinical trial work, particularly in cancer control and prevention – and that has proved to be very beneficial to the work I’m interested in now.”
Dr. Elizabeth Ryan works with graduate students in a laboratory.
After her postdoc, Dr. Ryan moved to Colorado with her family (her husband, Timothy, is an epidemiologist working in Wyoming and adjunct faculty in the Department), where her career at Colorado State began in the Department of Horticulture, focused on cancer prevention with the Crops for Health program. She then transitioned to the Flint Animal Cancer Center where she worked for three years before joining the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences. Today, Dr. Ryan has a joint appointment with the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, the Colorado School of Public Health, and numerous collaborators from both plant and biomedical sciences.
“Initially, my interests were primarily in the role of toxicology in the prevention of disease,” Dr. Ryan said. “How can we reduce environmental exposures and intervene without medications before people get sick? Now, I’m also looking at the small molecules in food and how diet can impact recovery from and protection against chronic and infectious diseases. I’m interested in learning more about how we can use food to maintain or restore health here in the United States and abroad.”
Dr. Ryan currently has three major research programs:
“When we have to balance available resources with health and wellness, we need to look at innovative ways to address problems of disease and food security,” said Dr. Ryan. “If we can develop underused food sources that can not only feed people, but keep them healthier, too, that is something we should pursue.