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.

Carolyn Munson : <h4>Research Technician, Zeisel Lab</h4>

Carolyn Munson

Research Technician, Zeisel Lab

Carolyn Munson graduated in 2015 from Rowan Cabarrus Community College with an AAS in biotechnology. She is working as a research technician in the Zeisel lab at the NRI. Much of her work is directed by Dr. Eneda Pjetri conducting behavioral studies and Dr. Natalia Surzenko performing immunohistochemistry work.

Stephen Oreña : <h4>Research Associate, Zeisel Lab</h4>

Stephen Oreña

Research Associate, 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 : <h4>Research Technician, Zeisel Lab</h4>

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.

Eneda Pjetri, Ph.D. : <h4>Postdoctoral Research Associate, Zeisel Lab</h4>

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.

Debby Reed : <h4>Research Technician, Zeisel Lab</h4>

Debby Reed

Research Technician, Zeisel Lab

Debby Reed received her BS in biochemistry and her MS in plant physiology from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. Debby has worked with several research labs using analytical methods such as gas and liquid chromatography with mass spectrometry to develop metabolic profiles of biological samples. She is working with the Zeisel lab to perform lipid analysis for ongoing diabetes research at the Nutrition Research Institute.

Natalia Surzenko, Ph.D. : <h4>Research Assistant Professor, Nutrition</h4>

Natalia Surzenko, Ph.D.

Research Assistant Professor, Nutrition

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. Learn More 

Isis Trujillo, Ph.D. : <h4>Postdoctoral Research Associate, Zeisel Lab</h4>

Isis Trujillo, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Research Associate, Zeisel Lab

Isis Trujillo received her Ph.D. 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.