Elizabeth Parks, Ph.D.
Dr. Elizabeth Parks studies how human bodies work—specifically, how the body uses and distributes the nutrients from food. As a professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, she focuses on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition that occurs when some people put on too much body fat and begin to store fat in their liver.
In people with NAFLD, the fat buildup in the liver interferes with liver function and can cause diabetes and pre-diabetes. It can eventually lead to cirrhosis of the liver. Dr. Parks’s research group studies how food is metabolized by giving volunteers food that is marked with non-radioactive stable isotopes. These isotopes are safe to eat and easy to detect in the body. They can be followed, by taking blood or tissue samples, to learn how the molecules from the food move through the body, including how they get to the liver.
Dr. Parks has a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology and education from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry from the University of California, Davis. She received the University of Missouri School of Medicine’s 2015 Award for Excellence in Junior Faculty Research Mentoring and the 2016 Robert I. Levy Award from the Kinetics and Metabolism Society.What have been the most rewarding aspects of your career?
I am always surprised at how the body keeps going in times of stress. The body keeps going in cancer, when people consume too much alcohol, and when they smoke cigarettes. It’s absolutely phenomenal how the system just tries to keep working. Much of our work has been about understanding the basic physiology of how the human body tolerates too much body fat. Where does the fat in the liver come from? Before we started our studies, nobody had ever asked that question.What is a career achievement of which you are most proud?
We have significantly contributed to changing the treatment of NAFLD in this country. Our studies were the first to demonstrate the negative effect of dietary sugars on liver disease.
Fat can accumulate in your liver by coming out of your fat stores, or it can come from dietary fat. It can also come from dietary sugar. When you drink a sugary drink, that sugar comes into the body and goes to the liver. The liver takes the sugar apart, puts the pieces back together, and synthesizes a new fatty acid. That process is called de novo lipogenesis.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was thought that this process was minor in humans. We have really led the way in showing this is a very important chemical process. Our early work showed that people with fatty liver disease have this happening all the time. The process doesn’t turn off between meals, the way it does in people without this disease.
When our data first came out, a lot of people in the field were skeptical. But it’s just become obvious that dietary sugars do contribute to fatty liver disease. This leads to an easy environmental and behavioral treatment. Recently, other scientists have shown that people don’t even have to lose weight to reduce liver fat. If they cut the sugars, their liver fat will fall very fast.What are some characteristics of a successful scientist?
I think it’s willfulness. It takes a lot of energy and commitment to test a new idea. You have to be smart, but you also have to never give up. You take that idea and stay with it, no matter how long you have to work. There are barriers to science—not enough money, lab equipment breaks down, experiments don’t work.
But when you see really successful scientists, it’s that energy and single-mindedness. There are some quiet, calm scientists, and some who state their opinions quite openly … but successful scientists are all willful. When challenges come up, they just put their heads down, and they just do it.What are some of the challenges to being a scientist?
Because many scientists are single minded, it can make it difficult sometimes to work together. It’s a rare thing when you see a bunch of scientists say, “OK, I’ll stretch your direction and you’ll stretch mine, and we’ll find some new way to investigate this question.”
This is particularly true in the field of nutritional biochemistry. I suspect there are not going to be any more vitamins discovered or other discoveries that are driven by a single lab. Unlike with the major discoveries of the 1940s and 50s, these days, no lab is going to go forward in this field alone. I think nutrition science that will make an impact is now going to have to be team science. That means we need to get out of our comfort zone a little bit.How has mentorship (either as a mentor or mentee) shaped your career?
The mentoring I received was just stellar. I have been mentored by very inspirational scientists and teams of scientists. I have been mentored by people who are younger than me. I’ve had mentors that are more structured and organized and show the path, and I’ve had other mentors who think way outside of the box and are completely creative. So I’ve been able to see that all of that works. You can be a really successful scientist with all these different personal styles.
I think there’s so much talent out there that mentoring is really easy. When the mentee is ready to learn, you just put a little help in there, and they go forward so well. It is such a pleasure to see early career faculty do well.
Mentors also can appear out of nowhere. Recently, I was writing many, many pages of a grant, and I received very good input. There was one person who, in the margins, would give me input about the science and then a little compliment at the same time. I’m not used to that! It was just amazing, how encouragement to keep going helped a lot when I was focusing on trying to make my writing better.What do you do outside the lab/clinic?
I garden. Getting my hands in the dirt is my therapy. But I also really, really like my work. I don’t spend a lot of time outside of work because I enjoy it every day, going to the lab. I’m lucky, I know.Do you have advice for young female scientists?
Find something that you like so much that you’re willing to give it your all. Being a scientist is really hard. You spend months writing a grant, putting your best ideas out there. Your job is to submit your best and have it critiqued.
You have to like the process, because the likelihood of success is so very low. Unfortunately, in scientific culture, too much emphasis is put on benchmarks for success. During training in science, if you’re not happy until you’re done with your Ph.D., then you won’t be happy for a while. Then you’re not happy until you’re done with a postdoc. Then you’re not happy until you’ve got your assistant professorship, and then you’re really afraid you’re not going to get tenure. And then you get tenure—and will you be promoted? And will you get funded?
Science tends to set up that expectation that those benchmarks are the only things to focus on. You should be very proud of them, but every day you have to go to work. My goal is to appreciate the daily activities and the people around me.
It’s all about your attitude. That’s how you get success in academia: Do your job. Put the grant in. Teach your classes well, be a good colleague, and do your scholarship. It’s a great life.