2021 Early Career Researcher Award: Nathaniel Willis
At the 2021 Annual Hydration for Health conference, 6 candidates competed for the Early Career Researcher Award title and one won it, let’s meet Nathaniel Willis.
During the Early Career Researcher Award contest, candidates never fail to impress the scientific committee as well as the hydrationist community with high quality abstracts and presentations. This contest gives us the opportunity to witness the dedication of the new generation and how much knowledge and hard work they are willing to invest given a platform and an opportunity to do so.
Our goal when creating this contest was to support the future of hydration science and encouraging more interests in this field of study. Looking at the 2021 candidates makes us feel proud and confident about how promising the future looks for hydration research:
- Modeling Hydration Status Given Daily Measures of Body Mass, Urine Color, and Thirst,
Travis Anderson, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, USA
- Urinary UDP, glucose as a novel actionable biomarker of dehydration-induced acute kidney injury,
Maria Agustina Battistone, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, USA
- Copeptin is related to mucolytic bacteria and gut barrier function,
Nathaniel Willis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA
- Self-Reported Changes in Thirst and Alertness during Variable Prescribed Fluid Intake,
Hillary Yoder, University of Alabama & University of Wyoming, USA
- Estimating differences in risk of chronic kidney disease based on water intake in a national sample,
David Lartey, Montana State University, Bozeman, USA
- The Acute Effect of Adequate Water Intake on Glucose Regulation in Low Drinkers,
Adam Seal, California Polytechnic State University, USA
We have met with Nathaniel Willis, the 2021 Early Career Researcher Award Winner at the 13th Hydration for Health scientific conference. Passionate about nutrition and hydration, Nathaniel is always thirsty to learn more and explore how to positively impact our health through both nutrition and hydration. Besides being a PhD student at the University of Illinois in his third year of study, who is Nathaniel? Let’s find out in the interview below.
How did your journey in research start?
“Prior to research, I worked in food service throughout my 20s. My undergraduate is in business and restaurant administration and hospitality. I worked for several years in restaurants learning how to cook and manage kitchens. It ultimately culminated in a management position where I oversaw transitioning into a more dynamic and health-conscious cafeteria setting in schools. It was fun. It had great interactions with parents and students that were very excited about the food they were eating. That role allowed me to act as an ambassador for some of the food and cultural ideals that I subscribe to. It also showed me the opportunity there is to teach kids about nutrition. All this spurred me to pursue an advanced degree in nutritional sciences. I was incredibly lucky to land with doctor Naiman Khan at the University of Illinois. He has giving me a wonderful platform to learn and apply.”
Switching from a practical universe to research must have given you a unique perspective to nutrition and hydration!
“Yes, it does shape the way I see things. Although, I also feel underprepared without an academic and research background. It was a very steep learning curve. Students in my lab helped me adapt too.”
What topics are you working on? Can you give us a sneak peek of the key findings?
“Historically our lab has worked a lot with carotenoids and how they affect thinking ability in kids and adults. My kind of piece of that pie was a follow up research looking at a water intake intervention in kids and how it may have impacted their thinking ability. I started in a primary paper published by Dr. Khan, where we found that children in high-water intake condition showed improved memory and behavioral responses. Recently, I have been delving into relationships between hydration markers and gut health by looking at gut microbiota’s relative abundance and how that might fluctuate based on hydration status.”
What motivated you to start working on kids’ hydration first?
“It was a great opportunity to merge my background working with children in live field setting with this interesting research. A lot of our health behaviors and habits were formed in childhood. It feels like capturing children and adjusting or introducing habits at a young age is how to really set the table for lifelong health and success.”
A lot of our health behaviors and habits were formed in childhood. It feels like capturing children and adjusting or introducing habits at a young age is how to really set the table for lifelong health and success.
It looks more challenging to make these changes as an adult. For people that are striving to improve their health, how would you summarize your presentation during the H4H conference in an easy way?
“We found specific bacteria in the gut more or less abundant based on hydration markers. The key takeaway is that this marker is tied to the anti-diuretic hormone vasopressin, how our body regulates water balance and water turnover, was significantly related to a marker of gut barrier function which is also related to bacteria in the gut that colonize a specific part of our intestine. Those two things together suggested to us that hydration balance might be related to how our gut barrier function is regulated. So far, we can only say that they are related. We're hoping to continue in the future with some intervention work in order to look at more causal and mechanistic effects. But for now, it's exciting for me to know that potentially something as simple as drinking water could impact how our body is regulating the gut barrier and the absorption of nutrients and our metabolism.”
The key takeaway is that this marker is tied to the anti-diuretic hormone vasopressin, how our body regulates water balance and water turnover, was significantly related to a marker of gut barrier function which is also related to bacteria in the gut that colonize a specific part of our intestine.
How did you feel participating in the Early Career Researcher Award competition?
“I thought it was an incredible opportunity. I was shocked and honored to be selected as a finalist. It was nothing I ever expected. It feels very rewarding to have other people validate the work that I am doing and say and show interest in it.”
What was the experience of presenting your research in only 3 minutes like?
“Stressful! it's very challenging to distill that much information into a 3min presentation. That's close to one of the hardest things I've done since I've been in grad school. It feels like I would take my 2 hours qualifying exam again over doing that!”
Was it challenging mainly because of the time limit?
“For me, the less time I have the more I want to say. It’s hard to find the right balance between that and not talking too fast, not getting too technical, etc. The remote nature of everything with COVID also introduced a new challenge. When talking live in front of people, you don’t overthink it although it may not be perfect. Nevertheless, being able to run it back and watch the video and point out different things you don’t like was an opportunity to make changes, but it also made it difficult. Plus, I have never been in this position before. I didn't know what to say, how to address it, what the audience was going to be like… so focus was also very challenging.”
I think that's very common. When we self-record we pick up on various things we dislike, whereas when we're just live it's more natural and we don't get in our heads so much. How enriching was the mentorship experience with the Hydration for Health scientific committee?
“Throughout the process, I felt very supported. The possibility to run my presentation in front of the scientific committee and get their feedback was incredible. They are wise and experienced scientists. Getting 10 or 15 minutes in a room with them is valuable. It helped my presentation and my understanding of how to communicate science more effectively to a broader audience, especially in terms of the gut microbiota that generally has a very specific audience."
Throughout the process, I felt very supported. The possibility to run my presentation in front of the scientific committee and get their feedback was incredible. They are wise and experienced scientists.
What does winning the early career researcher award mean to you?
“Being selected as the winner was quite an honor especially since the other presentations were amazing. The whole rest of the conference felt very much like a whirlwind. I was super blown away by the quality across the board. To be able to win with that quality of work everybody is doing was surprising and rewarding! Winning this award and honestly just being a finalist for this award reaffirms the work I’m doing and makes me excited to continue working on hydration and the gut microbiota. Also, the trophy is beautiful!”
What would you like to say to people who are thinking of applying for the next year contest?
“I would say to them: if you’re considering it, do it! You’ll never know what's going to happen if you don't put yourself out there. That’s the first step. As for the presentation and abstract give it to as many people to look at as possible. Solicit advice no matter how critical, from different people because that helped me for example understand the level of technicality that was appropriate.”
Any last message you would like to share with our audience?
“I would like to thank everybody that assisted me on this project and has mentored me through the last three years. I had an incredible experience with my advisor, with the University of Illinois and the collaborators. For me the message would be to value the team that you work with because none of us are doing it alone.”
Since you've been working closely on nutrition and hydration, can you share with us a piece of advice on how important would you say hydration is?
“I think food and water are the first and most approachable way to keep ourselves healthy. As more and more people are working on hydration and dietary components, we keep finding about how optimizing nutrition and hydration are really contributing to limiting disease risk and maximizing the quality of our lives. In that regard, I think it's a simple thing for a lot of people, at least in developed countries, to always have water around them and hopefully we continue to find ways to make clean water accessible for everyone.”