Dr. Sheldon Rowan, from the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, talks about his BrightFocus-funded research on the role of gut bacteria in age-related macular degeneration.
INTERVIEWER: [in progress] … research project.
SHELDON ROWAN: My name is Sheldon Rowan. I’m originally from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and then I moved to Boston for my graduate studies and training—and I’m at Boston now, at Tufts University. My research is on age-related macular degeneration, and we’re looking at the interaction between diet, age, risk for age-related macular degeneration. My specific take on that is looking at how that impacts on gut bacteria and risk for age-related macular degeneration.
INTERVIEWER: What do you hope your project is able to achieve?
SHELDON ROWAN: I kind of have the scientific achievements—I’m really interested in understanding how we can define the role of gut bacteria. Is it protective? How does it contribute to the disease? So, I have these short-term interests but, in the long-term, I really think of nutrition as something that is a potential treatment for age-related macular degeneration. Giving people good advice on how they could modify their diet, what they eat, and the impact on the risk for disease … I think this could actually have an impact on disease. I’d like to see that not just translated to people, but maybe even practiced by people.
INTERVIEWER: Fantastic. What inspired you to become a researcher?
SHELDON ROWAN: I’ve pretty much known I was going to be a researcher since I was in high school. I would say that in my early days I was mostly fascinated by this question of, How do things work? This basic question: How do organs develop, for example? How did we come to be? How did life originate? So I did basic research through my graduate studies. I took an interest in the eye, and so I was studying development of the ocular structures. Then after that I realized, well, now that I’ve kind of made contributions and we have some really good insights into how we make a structure, what happens during aging? What happens in the disease process? So, I’ve been really interested in those questions since, and I’m trying to figure out new ways that we could do research and new avenues to explore.
INTERVIEWER: What message would you like to share about the importance of scientific research?
SHELDON ROWAN: Scientific research, no matter how advanced it seems we are right now, we’re just at the beginning. We’re just scratching the surface of our understanding, and right now I can already see that we’ve gone beyond the basic discoveries, and we’re in an age with incredible data and incredible knowledge out there. But we haven’t figured out how to put it together and we haven’t really done enough to translate these basic discoveries into treatments for people. So, the research is just beginning and it needs to accelerate. The other thing I should point out is most of our fundamental discoveries have come by accident, so research in every field is actually contributing to our understanding of disease. So the more research, the better. There’s a lot of questions we don’t know the answers to.
INTERVIEWER: Would you like to say anything to our donors who might be watching this interview right now?
SHELDON ROWAN: I would. Beyond “thank you” and how grateful I am to have this fellowship, there’s a few things about BrightFocus that are unique, especially as they impact me. One of them is that BrightFocus has this commitment to young scientists—and I’d like to think of myself as a young scientist—and they’ll go in preferentially to fund people that may not have the track record or the achievements to get large government grants. So supporting people at early stages in their career is so invaluable—I see myself, I see my colleagues—which the government is kind of stepping back from doing right now. My project is cutting-edge but it’s risky. We don’t know what the results are going to be. BrightFocus is willing to try innovative science and new approaches: “out there” ideas. I mean, this is the forefront and I know none of that is possible without the donors, so I can’t say enough. “Thank you” to them and to the organization for making this happen.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you. What excites you most about current trends around your area of research?
SHELDON ROWAN: I’m really passionate right now in looking at this role between the diet and the microbiome—all of the bacteria that live within us—and what’s been incredible is this understanding of the bacteria that live within us. We used to think of them as just kind of passive “hanger-ons” that maybe had some role in metabolism. But now we actually understand they’re controlling our health, they’re controlling our well-being, and we have this really intricate relationship with them that we’re just beginning to explore—and this is making contributions to chronic disease, to autoimmunity, to eye disease, probably to cognitive disorders. So I think it’s amazing: the idea that there’s this whole slew of organisms within us that are working together to affect our health and well-being. It’s tremendously exciting because we can impact them, they can impact us, and it’s a whole new avenue for not just research, but for therapy.
INTERVIEWER: What is something people might not know about working as a researcher?
SHELDON ROWAN: What people may not realize is … I think people appreciate that it takes a long time to do good science. But what people may not appreciate is the results don’t just come to you in these “aha” moments. For example, in my research I do aging studies. These could take a couple of years, but it’s not like, “Oh, the study’s done and I found out the results.” It takes years after that to tease everything apart, to do the analysis, to look at the data.
INTERVIEWER: How do you describe your technical research to your family and friends?
SHELDON ROWAN: I try not to do too much technical details with them. What I’ve realized in talking to people is they’re really passionate about the question about “why.” Why are you doing this? And then, what do you hope to achieve? I spend most of my time doing the “how.” <break in recording>
INTERVIEWER: And to our viewers, please tune back in. We are going to be continuing to interview our grantees throughout the day.* Thank you.
SHELDON ROWAN: You’re welcome. Thank you so much.
* Dr. Rowan's interview was one of several Facebook Live interviews recorded on June 6, 2018.
This content was last updated on: July 24, 2018