My conversation with Claudia Dreifus of the New Times can be found here. I have to commend Claudia for putting in a great deal of effort on this piece. I never realized that they were so much work. The published interview is a very condensed version of our many conversations. Claudia did her very best to make sure everything was accurate but some nuance had to be sacrificed for space. For example, I was engaged but not yet married when I moved to NIH. Also, I want to point out that I did know that a calorie was a unit of energy but I had no idea that the food Calorie is really a kilocalorie nor how many Calories are contained in common food items.
One of the things that got cut from the story was that I heard about the job at NIDDK from John Rinzel. The Laboratory of Biological Modeling that I’m now part of, used to be called the Mathematical Research Branch and John was its chief for twenty years. Wilfrid Rall was the chief before John. A brief history of the lab can be found here. One could argue that this was where computational neuroscience was established. Bard Ermentrout is among the many computational neuroscientists that passed through the lab. The branch actually predates the NIDDK and was put there for administrative reasons even though it focused on neuroscience. However, near the end of John’s tenure as chief, the institute had less enthusiasm for the lab and resources were reduced. John ended up leaving for NYU. Marvin Gershengorn came in as the new scientific director in the early 2000’s and he wanted to rebuild the lab. I have no doubt that I got the job because of the input Marvin received from John. Although Marvin was interested in obesity, he didn’t compel me to work on the topic. He was very good about giving me and the lab freedom to work on anything interesting. Right now there are four PIs in the lab – Artie Sherman, Kevin Hall, Vipul Periwal and myself, and we work on a variety of biological topics although mostly with some connection to diabetes and metabolism. One thing that worried me about the piece, aside from a backlash from the food industry, was that it would pigeonhole me as an obesity researcher. I’m still very much interested in many topics including neuroscience, genetics and gene induction.
The last thing that doesn’t really make it through is that our argument for excess food causing the obesity epidemic is not just based on correlations between the increase in food supply and average body weight. What we did was to take the actual USDA reported food availability per person, feed it to our calibrated model and showed that it more than explained the weight increase. It may be that other factors liked decreases in physical activity are involved but they are not necessary to explain the obesity epidemic. Those that doubt it was caused by excess food must show that all of it was thrown away. We are already arguing that most of it was wasted. Finally, I don’t really know how to stem the obesity epidemic. I’m not sure that making food more expensive through taxation is the correct solution since it would cause hardship for low-income people. I do think that curtailing food marketing to children would help but I’m not hopeful that it would ever happen.
Correction: Jun 7, 2012. Will Rall was a member of the MRB but was never the chief.