Steven H. Zeisel, MD, PhD

Institute Director
Choline as an essential nutrient

As the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) grows and more scientists and administrators move to Kannapolis, there is one face that has been here since the beginning. In fact, UNC Nutrition Research Institute Director Steven Zeisel, MD, PhD, was a leader in this innovative venture before the first shovel hit the dirt. From the start, Zeisel was involved in building the dream of the NCRC, including its unique mission, novel approach to research, and distinguished team. Not only has he played an integral role alongside David H. Murdock in developing the vision of the Campus, he has also led the charge to seek scientific synergy between the best minds in nutrition research, through collaboration with the other NCRC organizations.
Under Zeisel’s leadership, this collaboration is the defining hallmark that will revolutionize the field of nutrition worldwide.Zeisel’s passion for the science of nutrition is evident throughout his distinguished career. He initially attended medical school at Harvard and completed his residency in pediatrics at Yale- New Haven Hospital. He earned his PhD in Nutrition from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1979.
After rising to the rank of professor at Boston University’s School of Medicine, Zeisel joined UNC-Chapel Hill’s faculty in 1990, becoming professor and chair of the UNC Department of Nutrition (the first department of nutrition in the country in both a school of public health and a medical school). In 1999, he was named Associate Dean of Research for the UNC School of Public Health. Later he began directing UNC’s Clinical Nutrition Research Unit (now called the UNC Nutrition Obesity Research Center). Subsequently, he was named a Kenan Distinguished University Professor of Nutrition & Pediatrics at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and at the UNC School of Medicine in 2005.
A world-renowned scientist, Zeisel is credited with the discovery of choline’s role as an essential nutrient, particularly for women during pregnancy. His studies on choline were the first to create an understanding of the nutrient’s critical role in brain development of infants. His research led the field of nutrition to establish the significance of this essential nutrient for brain development and outline the far-reaching implications for pregnant mothers.
After discovering that a defined level of choline in the mother’s body during pregnancy enhances the brain efficiency of the child three- fold, Zeisel and his research team further established that a select group of mothers were able to produce choline naturally. Zeisel continued his research on choline to identify the genetic markers that will allow mothers to test whether they produce sufficient levels of choline naturally, or if dietary intervention is required.
This focus on individual variation and nutritional needs has since become the mission of the UNC Nutrition Research Institute.  With this mission as a guiding principle, Dr. Zeisel and NRI research teams focus on identifying individual differences in nutrient metabolism, using the variation in requirements for choline as a model.
Now at the helm of the NRI, Zeisel keeps one foot in administration and the other in science. Zeisel drives the NRI’s progress toward ground-breaking discovery in metabolomics, nutrigenomics, obesity, and cancer as he actively identifies and recruits top scientists who will enhance both the NRI’s body of work and its reputation. In addition to directing the Institute’s growing faculty, he has continued his research in nutrition and brain development, overseeing active laboratories in Kannapolis and Chapel Hill.
Currently, Zeisel’s laboratory teams are investigating how gene misspellings alter dietary requirements, how diet can add marks to genes which turn them on an off (epigenetics), and how choline is needed for normal liver, muscle and sperm function. All of these studies have been supported by grants from the US National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Zeisel’s research efforts have won him many awards, including the esteemed National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Falk Award. Zeisel received the award at the event in October, 2010 at Research Triangle Park, where he presented the Hans L. Falk Memorial Lecture entitled, “Nutrigenomics, Estrogen and Environmental Chemicals Influence the Dietary Requirements of Choline.” Each year a featured speaker that has made significant contributions to environmental health sciences research presents a memorial lecture honoring Hans L. Falk, NIEHS’ first scientific director. That same year, Dr. Zeisel delivered the State-of-the Art Lecture at the Annual meeting of the American Gastroenterologic Association.
In 2009, Zeisel was also selected to deliver the prestigious W.O. Atwater Lecture by the US Department of Agriculture, an honor reserved for those scientists who have made unique contributions toward improving the diet and nutrition of people around the world.
His other prestigious honors and awards include the American Society for Nutrition’s Osborne and Mendel Award, the American College of Nutrition’s Award for Outstanding Achievements in Nutrition, and the Bristol-Meyers Squibb/Mead Johnson Award for Distinguished Achievement in Nutrition.
For more information about Dr. Zeisel or to schedule an interview, please contact the UNC Nutrition Research Institute, 704-250-5008.



 Research Team

Walter Friday : <h4>Research Technician, Zeisel Lab</h4>

Walter Friday

Research Technician, 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.

Tonia Hermon, PhD : <h4>Postdoctoral Research Associate, Zeisel Lab</h4>

Tonia Hermon, PhD

Postdoctoral Research Associate, Zeisel Lab
(704) 250-5041

Dr. Hermon joined the NRI in January 2019. She received her PhD in Biomedical Sciences from Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) & Old Dominion University (ODU) joint PhD program.  She has more than 10 years of experience as a basic research scientist studying diseases and physiological processes that are highly regulated by steroid hormones such as estrogen.  Over the past two years she has served as a volunteer clinical researcher managing and participating in projects that focused on nutrigenetic analyses of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) related to choline metabolism.  Her research interest is to identify genetic variations (SNPs) in genes related to the metabolism of the nutrient choline with specific focus on estrogen-responsive metabolites and genes.  Overall, her long-term career goal is to become a competitive clinical research scientist faculty member in her hometown St. Thomas US Virgin Islands, focusing on the association of genetic variation, and nutritional requirements and status.

Lauren Hinkle : <h4>Research Technician, Zeisel Lab</h4>

Lauren Hinkle

Research Technician, Zeisel Lab
(704) 250-5048

Lauren joined the NRI in July 2018 as a Research Technician for the Zeisel Lab. She is currently a senior at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology with a minor in Public Health. Lauren is a Charlotte native and enjoys traveling, and spending time with her family.

Sunil Hwang, PhD : <h4>Lab Manager–Zeisel Lab</h4>

Sunil Hwang, PhD

Lab Manager–Zeisel Lab
(704) 250-5041

Sunil Hwang received his Ph.D degree in Animal Science and Biotechnology from Kyungpook National University, South Korea. He was a senior scientist investigating the clinical and translational proteomics research at Carolinas HealthCare System. He has extensive experience in biomedical and pharmaceutical analytics, automatic sample preparation, subcellular fractionation, and molecular cellular proteomics using liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry. Sunil is currently working on the Choline Status Study, designed to detect changes in the metabolome that reflect choline intake status.

Maricela Lara-Segura : <h4>Research Technician, Zeisel Lab</h4>

Maricela Lara-Segura

Research Technician, Zeisel Lab

Maricela came to the Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) as an intern student from RCCC. She was hired in May 2018 as a research technician by Dr. Meyer to study the diet of rodents and primates with a focus on how the gut microbiome relates to health. In late 2019, Marcela moved to the Zeisel Lab where she continues to work as a research technician.

Julie Stegall : <h4>Study Coordinator, Zeisel Lab</h4>

Julie Stegall

Study Coordinator, Zeisel Lab

In January 2018, Julie took on a new role as a Clinical Research Coordinator in the Zeisel Lab. She joined the NRI in 2009, and has worked on research studies with babies, toddlers, school age children, and adults, as well as managing other lab responsibilities. She was drawn to the NRI in 2009 by the opportunity to work with Carol Cheatham, PhD as a recruiter for her studies with children.  She quickly became a research assistant and lab manager during her 5 years with the Cheatham team.  An opportunity presented itself for her to focus in a different area with Philip May, PhD.  As a result of her past experiences with children diagnosed with a FASD, Julie became engrossed in May's research to understand more about this challenging problem. 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. Julie is a native of Kannapolis.

Isis Trujillo, PhD : <h4>Postdoctoral Research Associate, Zeisel Lab</h4>

Isis Trujillo, PhD

Postdoctoral Research Associate, Zeisel Lab

Isis Trujillo received her PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Her research was focused on the role of metabolic proteins associated with biotin in transcriptional regulation. She also collaborated on breast cancer research projects. Her interests include nutrigenomics, epigenetics and metabolism. She is now investigating how bioavailability of choline affects epigenetics neural progenitor cells.