Nutrition Research Institute
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Select a link below to meet our Leadership, Administrative Support Staff, Faculty and Researchers, and Board of Advisors:

Faculty and Research Teams
Administrative Support Staff
Board of Advisors

Faculty and Research Teams

Brian Bennett, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor - Department of Genetics (CV)
Dr. Bennett joined the NRI in December 2011. Dr. Bennett is focused on integrative genetic studies, also called systems genetics, to elucidate the genetic component of chronic metabolic diseases, such as obesity and cardiovascular disease. The goal of this work is to identify individual genes and/or the interaction of groups of genes, also called biologic networks, contributing to chronic disease. In addition to his appointment at the NRI, Dr. Bennett has an appointment in the Department of Genetics at UNC. (more info)

Annalouise O'Connor, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Research Associate, Bennett Lab
Dr. Annalouise O’Connor received her PhD in Nutrigenomics from University College in Dublin, Ireland, where her research focused on the impact of diet on metabolic health in polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Her bachelor’s degree is in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland. Before joining the NRI, Dr. O’Connor worked for the Food Safety Authority of Ireland compiling scientific recommendations for nutrition policy.

Jody Albright
Research Assistant, Bennett Lab
Jody Albright, a former business owner from Salisbury, is a 2011 graduate of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College with AS and AAS in Biotechnology degrees. He has recently joined the NRI in Dr. Bennett's lab as a laboratory technician. Jody is excited to use his recent education to develop several new protocols for the laboratory .

Allison Nestor
Research Technician, Bennett Lab
Bio coming soon!

Tangi Smallwood
Ph.D. Student
Tangi is a graduate of UNC Charlotte where she majored in Biology and Psychology and worked on research projects in both departments. She divided her free time between studying neuronal mechanisms for locomotor activity using an algorithmic model of motor neurons and identifying how variations in HDL and LDL levels in elementary school-aged children influences obesity. After studying at UNC Charlotte, Tangi pursued her MS in Biology at the University of Central Florida where she worked on a project using P-elements to map genetic loci involved in Rho signaling during Drosophila development. She identified a novel Rho GEF that interacts with the Rho GTPase signaling pathway during both embryonic and larval development in Drosophila melanogaster. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Genetics and Molecular Biology at UNC Chapel Hill. Tangi is interested in genetic determinants of disease susceptibility and the interplay of genetics and environmental risk factors for complex disease. Her current research is focused on using diversity outbred mice to identify genetic risk factors associated with atherosclerosis.

Wenhong Cao, M.D.

Wenhong Cao, M.D., studies insulin resistance, which is a precursor or key component of many major modern health problems, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, type II diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disorders, non-alcoholic fatty liver, Alzheimer’s disease, some cancers (breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer), and aging. Dr. Cao’s lab focuses on the mechanisms of insulin resistance including the following components: hepatic gluconeogenesis, hepatic lipogenesis, production of new mitochondria, autophagy-dependent removal of aged/damaged mitochondria, and insulin receptor isoforms, using various molecular, cellular, and animal models. His ultimate goal is to find new and more effective ways to prevent and reverse insulin resistance caused by the positive energy imbalance due to overeating and/or lack of physical activity. (more info)

Shuang Mei, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Research Associate, Cao Lab
Dr. Mei obtained her Ph.D. in Internal Medicine from the Third Hospital of Beijing University in 2005. She joined the Department of Pathology at the Shanghai Medical School, Fudan University, in 2005 as an assistant professor. In 2010, Dr. Mei joined the Department of Pharmacology, Toxicology & Therapeutics at the University of Kansas Medical Center as a postdoctoral research associate. In 2011, she came to UNC Chapel Hill to work with Wenhong Cao, MD. Her work here relates to molecular and cellular mechanisms of cholesterol ester accumulation on foam cell formation, focusing on the p38 MAP kinase signaling pathway. This cellular activity is an early step in the development of atherosclerosis. Dr. Mei’s research findings were published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. The second part of this study investigates the effect of cholesterol intake on mitochondria-derived oxidative stress with prolonged exposure to insulin. These results were published in Endocrinology.

Longying Zha, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Research Associate, Cao Lab
Dr. Zha obtained his Ph.D. in animal molecular nutrition from Zhejiang University, China in 2007. Before joining Dr. Cao’s lab in NRI in February 2013 as a visiting scholar/postdoctoral research associate, he was an associate professor at Southern Medical University, China. At the NRI, Dr. Zha combines a gene knockout mouse model with a series of molecular and cellular techniques (iTRAQ, co-immunoprecipitation, RNAi, FQ-PCR, and Western-blot) to identify phytochemicals with anti-inflammation and insulin resistance-enhancing bioactivities that have potential to prevent chronic non-communicable diseases like type II diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, non-alcohol fatty liver diseases and some cancers.

Carol Cheatham, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Psychology (CV)
Dr. Carol Cheatham is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, she earned her Ph.D. in child psychology and neuroscience in 2004. She will be part of the Institute's brain research team. In addition to her appointment with the NRI, Cheatham will also hold an appointment as assistant professor in UNC's department of psychology. She has published research on memory recall in pre-term infants, the role of fatty acids in neonatal brains and how stress impacts brain development, as well as other topics. (more info)

Kim Adams
Recruiter, Cheatham Lab
Kim Adams joined the Cheatham team in September 2012 as a research assistant. With some training in nursing and a B.S. in Psychology, she is thrilled to be working in the field of Nutrition and Cognition. Kim is currently working on her Masters in Counseling at UNC Charlotte. She thoroughly enjoys the time she spends with participants of the BERRY study and feels fortunate to be working with such a talented and caring group.

Andrea Armer
Recruiter, Cheatham Lab
Andrea is currently working toward a Masters in Health Education and Promotions. She earned her B.S. in Elementary Education from Appalachian State University, then taught third grade for several years in the public school system. In the Cheatham Lab, she is able to combine her love for children with her love for health and nutrition. She is very excited to be in the lab and is eager to learn all she can about the research process.

Grace Millsap
Research Assistant, Cheatham Lab
Grace Millsap is a North Carolina native, currently seeking her second bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in Biology. She obtained her first degree in Psychology from Appalachian State University, and plans to pursue her Ph.D. in neuroscience. Grace spent several years in between degrees teaching kids gymnastics and dance on a noncompetitive level. Her current position as a Research Assistant for the Cheatham Nutrition and Cognition Lab fuses her two loves of teaching children and learning about brain development, and she feels truly lucky to work with such wonderful people.

Julie Stegall
Recruiter, Cheatham Team
Julie Stegall is a recently-returned native of Kannapolis. She is serving as a recruiter for Dr. Cheatham’s research studies. Julie earned a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications and a Masters in Social Work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work with children and families spans a variety of locations and settings. As the mother of two young children, she is excited about the NRI's research exploring the impact of nutrition on our children's health and development. She enjoys sharing information with other parents about what they can do to help.

Folami Ideraabdullah, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Department of Genetics
Folami Ideraabdullah, Ph.D., joined the UNC Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) in January 2013 as an Assistant Professor of Genetics in the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH). Her long-term research goal is to understand the role of gene-environment interactions in phenotypic variation and disease. (more info)

Ryan Kuster
Research Technician, Ideraabdullah Lab
Ryan received his BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas. At UNC Greensboro, his MS work focused on immunological responses of honey bees to mite parasitism. As a technician at the UNC NRI, Ryan looks forward to broadening his understanding of genetic analysis under the guidance of Dr Folami Ideraabdullah.

Judy Oakes
Postdoctoral Research Associate, Ideraabdullah Lab
Dr. Oakes earned her Ph.D. in Biology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her dissertation work focused on development of oral immunotherapies and vaccines using a transgenic soybean platform. She continued her training as a postdoctoral research associate at The Center for Genes, Environment & Health (National Jewish Health and the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Denver Colorado) investigating environmental exposures and genetic variation in a mouse model, and how these combinations influences innate immune response in the lung. In Dr. Ideraabdullah’s lab, Dr. Oakes will be investigating the role of gene-environment interactions and epigenetic states during embryo development. Her focus is on investigating how these epigenetic states are influenced by nutrient deficiency or over supplementation.

Martin Kohlmeier, M.D.
Research Professor, Nutrition
Martin Kohlmeier’s expertise is in laboratory diagnostics, nutritional genetics and the use of computers for professional and lay nutrition education, with doctorates in medicine, biochemistry and clinical biochemistry from the universities of Heidelberg and Berlin. He is director of the Nutrition in Medicine project, which provides comprehensive online nutrition education to medical students, physicians and other healthcare providers worldwide. Dr. Kohlmeier searches for small genetic differences that change how much of a nutrient people need for optimal health. He is developing online computer programs that use genetic and other personal information to guide individual food choices in a safe and effective way. He expects that personalized nutrition can make a major impact on the big killer diseases, such as reducing breast cancer risk by a third or more. (more info)

Olivia Dong
Research Assistant, Kohlmeier Lab
Olivia received a BS in Nutritional Sciences, Dietetics from UC Berkeley. She joined the NRI in January 2014 as a study coordinator after graduating from UNC Chapel Hill's MPH-RD coordinated program. At the NRI, she helps Dr. Kohlmeier and Dr. Corbin with study recruitment, dietary assessments, and diet development for feeding studies. Throughout graduate school, Olivia worked with Dr. Kohlmeier on the Nutrition in Medicine project where she helped create online nutrition education for health care professionals. In the fall she will be returning to UNC to begin a PhD program in Pharmacotherapy and Experimental Therapeutics. She plans to apply her nutrition and public health background in her future work in the pharmaceutical sciences.

Josh Hogg
Research Assistant, Kohlmeier Lab
Josh Hogg attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and received a BS in Kinesiology with a concentration in Sports Medicine. As a Research Assistant for the Kohlmeier Lab, Josh creates exercise protocols to link dietary intake states with muscle performance. Josh hopes to pursue a Doctorate degree in Physical Therapy. He is delighted to have this opportunity at the NRI, and is excited to learn more about the practices of research.

Philip May, Ph.D.
Research Professor
Philip A. May, PhD, joined the NRI on April 1, 2011 as Research Professor and is an expert in the field of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).
Dr. May has conducted extensive research on the epidemiology and risk factors for FASD, including alcohol use and abuse, and how FASD relates to mental health and deviance. Dr. May’s specialty areas also extend to demog¬ra¬phy and med¬ical soci¬ol-ogy, focusing much of his research on community-wide pre¬ven¬tion of the disorder. (more info)

Julie Hasken
Project Manager, May Lab
Julie earned a BS in Health Science from Truman State University and a Masters in Public Health, with a concentration in Health Education and Health Behavior, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a Certified Health Education Specialist, her prior work focused on tobacco prevention and control. At the NRI, Julie works with Philip May, Ph.D., on the administrative and programmatic implementation of community-based Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders studies worldwide.

Heather Shaw
Research Assistant, May Lab
Heather received her B.S. in Nutrition & Dietetics from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Heather has a background in public health nutrition with a focus in maternal, infant and child health. In 2012, Heather became an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) to professionally assist breastfeeding families. She has a special interest in how fetal and infant nutrition impact physical and cognitive development. She is thrilled to further her understanding of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and is honored to be a part of Dr. May’s research team.

Mihai Niculescu, M.D., Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Nutrition (CV)
Dr. Niculescu obtained his M.D. degree from Carol Davila University of Medicine in Bucharest, Romania in 1995. He practiced medicine in Romania and was an assistant professor of Physiology at Transylvania University in Brasov, Romania from 1996 to 2000. In 2005 he obtained his Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focused on choline and brain development, and he has written numerous articles in this area. His current work studies how high-fat diets alter gene expression. (more info)

Daniel Lupu, M.D.
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Dr. Daniel Lupu studied medicine in Romania and is developing his interest in the relationship between prenatal environmental cues (especially nutrition) and fetal brain development—specifically, the epigenetic imprinting that takes place in utero. His lab skills include histological assessment, nucleotide sequencing, PCR and RT-PCR, and protein labeling.

Saroja Voruganti, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Nutrition
Saroja Voruganti, Ph.D., joined the UNC Nutrition Research Institute in November 2013 as an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Voruganti’s long-term research goal is to understand the genetic and environmental factors that affect complex human diseases using a combination of statistical, molecular and bioinformatics (network/pathway analysis) techniques. (more info)

Geetha Chittoor, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Research Associate, Voruganti Lab
Dr. Geetha Chittoor’s main research interests are focused on genetic epidemiology of complex diseases such as obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and other chronic kidney disease (CKD) and cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors. Since the days of her undergraduate biology program in India, she developed a special interest in health-related research. As part of her Master’s thesis, she examined the profiles of obesity and blood pressure in two endogamous populations of the Chittoor District, Andhra Pradesh, India. As part of her Ph.D. program in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, she addressed similar issues, but with emphasis on genetic epidemiological investigation of blood pressure and its correlation with metabolic syndrome-related traits in children. Her postdoctoral training at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, San Antonio, with initial two years of support provided by a Cowles Postdoctoral Fellowship provided her an opportunity to work in the field of genetic epidemiology and statistical genetics. She is conducting research on the genetic risk of CKD and CVD in minority populations, and further investigating the gene-by-environment interaction influences (e.g. diet, physical activity, socio-demographic factors, ethnicity) on CKD/CVD outcomes.

Steven H. Zeisel, M.D., Ph.D.
Institute Director (more) (CV)
Dr. Zeisel is recognized as an international leader in nutrition research. His team's work established the requirement for choline, a newly recognized essential part of our diet. His work on nutrition and brain development, genetic variation and diet requirements, environment and nutrition, and medical education are supported by grants from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Zeisel directs one of the NIH national centers of excellence in human nutrition research. (more info)

Karen Corbin, Ph.D., R.D.
Research Assistant Professor
Dr. Corbin is a Registered Dietitian who has devoted her clinical and research career to understanding nutrition requirements in common chronic disorders including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. At the UNC Nutrition Research Institute, she has been instrumental in launching the clinical nutrition research facilities, including the metabolic chamber, metabolic research kitchen, and body composition laboratory. She has collaborated on several studies across the North Carolina Research Campus and Nutrition Research Institute, including two involving the metabolic chamber, which measures energy expenditure and substrate utilization very precisely in humans. She recently completed postdoctoral studies related to the involvement of genetic polymorphisms across one carbon metabolism and other clinical/demographic factors in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and obesity. Her current studies are focused on understanding the mechanisms by which one carbon metabolism intersects with energy metabolism, with particular emphasis on hepatic mechanisms.

Yanyan Wang, M.D., Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Research Associate, Zeisel Lab
Dr. Wang joined the NRI in January 2013. She obtained her M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from Third Military Medical University, China in 2001 and 2008 respectively. The goal of her postdoctoral research is to determine the mechanisms that underlie the choline-related effects on fetal brain development.

Summer Goodson, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Research Associate, Zeisel Lab
Bio coming soon!

Eneda Pjetri, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Research Associate, Zeisel Lab
Eneda Pjetri earned her MD at Marmara University, Turkey and her PhD in neuroscience at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. Her dissertation focused on the role of genetic and environmental interaction in an animal model of anorexia nervosa. During her PhD she also worked at the Section of Eating Disorders, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, United Kingdom. Dr. Pjetri joined the NRI as postdoctoral researcher in September 2013. Her research focus is to further study choline's role in behavior using knockout mouse models.

Natalia Surzenko, Ph.D.
Research Scientist, Zeisel Lab
Natalia Surzenko, PhD, joined the NRI in August of 2013 as a Research Scientist. Dr. Surzenko’s studies focus on understanding how nutrient availability affects brain and eye development. Dr. Surzenko received her PhD in Neurobiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her graduate research work was focused on elucidating the molecular mechanisms of neural progenitor cell maintenance. During her postdoctoral studies at the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Surzenko worked towards understanding the strategies employed by neural progenitor cells of the retina to generate neuronal cell diversity. At the NRI, Dr. Surzenko combines mouse genetic tools with a variety of cellular assays to assess the roles of distinct nutrient molecules in the regulation of neurogenesis in the developing and adult central nervous system.

Thembekile Dube
Research Technician, Zeisel Lab
Bio coming soon!

Walter Friday
Research Assistant, Zeisel Lab
Walter Friday, a Kannapolis native, recently returned to Cabarrus County to get married. He is a 2010 graduate of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College with an AAS in Biotechnology. He is pleased to be working at the Nutrition Research Institute as a research technician. He enjoys spending time with his wife, reading, and traveling.

Stephen Oreña
Research Assistant, Zeisel Lab
Stephen Oreña received his B.S. degree in Zoology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and an M.S. degree from Harvard Medical School, Boston. He went on to do drug discovery research in the areas of diabetes and obesity at Pfizer, Inc. Stephen has extensive experience in cell biology, molecular biology and animal research with expertise in the design and execution of a variety of in vitro and in vivo assays for both screening and mechanistic purposes. Stephen is currently working on a phytochemical screen for activation of the anti-oxidant response pathway.

Jennifer Owen
Research Technician, Zeisel Lab
Jennifer Rhinehart Owen attended East Carolina University and received a BS in Biology and an MS in Cell Biology. Her work there focused on characterizing Mesenchymal stem cells in human breast tissue. She is very excited about working at the Nutrition Research Institute as a research technician focusing on molecular biology techniques.

Xiaomeng You
Nutrition Graduate Student, Zeisel Lab
Xiaomeng obtained her B.S. degree in Nutrition Science from Shanghai Jiaotong University, China. She is currently studying under Dr. Zeisel lab as a graduate student. Her study involves the interaction between dietary fats, the intestinal innate immune system and the microbiome, and their roles in the regulation of the whole body energy expenditure.

Heather (Xueqing) Zhao
Research Technician, Zeisel Lab
Heather received a B.S. in biotechnology from Beijing Normal University and an M.S. in nutrition from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her master’s thesis project used metabolomic methods to identify breast cancer biomarkers. Heather recently joined Dr. Zeisel’s lab as a research technician, where her work focuses on metabolite analysis.