Artemis Simopoulos, M.D., Founder, Center for Genetics & Nutrition
Career Choice: Growing up in Greece after the Second World War, there were many children suffering from malnutrition and infectious diseases including tuberculosis. In high school we were taught biology and human development not by a high school teacher but by the director of public health of the town of Kalamata who was a physician. He was very enthusiastic about the importance of Nutrition, Physical Activity and their contribution to health. He emphasized that all of us could participate in taking responsibility individually and collectively about our health. In addition to the physical activity which we had three times a week for forty minutes each day, we were taught Greek traditional dances. I became very proficient in dancing and in 1949 I performed for Queen Frederika of Greece. I still love dancing—I could then say that it was Dr. Lambropoulos who inspired me about medicine, the different contributions that a physician could make not only taking care of the sick children but teaching, and motivating the healthy children to stay healthy.
When I came to Barnard I took the exam that all foreign students were required to take and was given 16 (one semester) credits which gave me a lot of confidence; I graduated in three years. At the interview for medical school, I was asked why I wanted to be a doctor. At the same time I was told by the interviewer that medicine was all consuming- what about children, family, etc. My response was that unlike the U.S., in Greece, the majority of dentists, pediatricians, dermatologists and public health physicians were women, who also had families. Why shouldn’t a woman have it all? Of course a supporting husband is the most important person in a woman’s life. I was surprised when the interviewer Dr. Greeley said, “I think you will make a very good doctor, you appear determined and disciplined-you will make a good pediatrician.”
Challenges: After five years at the National Academy of Sciences I went back to the NIH where I was appointed chairperson of the Nutrition Coordinating Committee in the Office of the Director, NIH. It was a very difficult job because the Institute directors are like Barons and do not want to have programs that their staff has to report to a coordinating chairperson who is independent of them, and reports only to the Director of the NIH. It was the most difficult job because of those feelings and beliefs of the Institute Directors. Dr. Frederickson, the Director of NIH wanted the committee to succeed and I had his full support because I worked very hard, was disciplined and read every funded grant on nutrition and insisted on the importance of Genetics. The biggest problem though was the people outside the NIH who looked at Nutrition Research as being an extension of Dietetics rather than metabolism and genetics.
In 1986 I left NIH because I wanted to pursue the role of Omega-3 fatty acids in health and disease and genetic variation and nutrition. I set up the Center for Genetics, Nutrition & Health a non-profit educational organization. We were very successful because we established the International Society of Fatty acids and Lipids (ISFAL) which operated out of our Center for the first seven years and led to expansion of research on Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids worldwide. Two years ago we established the International Society of Nutrigenetics/Nutrigenomics (ISNN), of which I am President. Every four years prior to the Olympic Games we hold the International Conference on Nutrition and Fitness (ICNF) at the International Olympic Academy at Ancient Olympia or in Athens, Greece. The conferences were the first to point out that physical activity in combination with diet which is consistent in composition with the diet we evolved in, are the major contributors to health and must always be considered as a dyad. Three years ago the World Health Organization adopted this concept.
Accomplishments: It is without saying that my research in defining the components of the traditional diet of Greece clearly showed that under complete natural conditions the Omega 3 fatty acids are found throughout the food supply in equal amounts to Omega 6 fatty acids and that a balanced ratio of 1-2/1 of Omega- 6/Omega -3 is necessary for normal development throughout the life cycle. This concept, which was totally new in the 1980’s created problems for me, putting me up against the vegetable oils lobby as well as the pharmaceutical industry. But I knew that my data were correct and persisted. The book on “The Return of Omega 3 Fatty Acids into The Food Supply”, which I edited following the conference I organized at the National Institutes of Health and “The Omega Plan” (hardcover), “The Omega Diet” (paperback) for the public were fundamental for the recognition by the scientific community and the public of the importance of the balanced ratio of Omega-6/Omega-3 fatty acids. The tide finally turned and science triumphed. The Omega diet has been translated into Dutch, Swedish, French, Greek, published in Australia, New Zealand and the U.K, Chinese, Korean, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Bulgarian and expected in Spanish soon. Knowing who is at high risk for the development of the disease will increase the motivation of people to take specific actions. The idea that each one of us is unique and that all of us or each one of us carries genetic variants, has been shown to have a strong scientific base.
Turning Point: Being at the NIH at the right time when in the late 70’s and early 80’s science was advancing and the political pressures were less so, allowed me as chairman of the NIH NCC for 13 years to develop many programs such as the Clinical Nutrition Research Units (CNRU) and about 100 requests for proposals (RFPDQ), in different areas of nutrition research over a period of 13 years. It also gave me the opportunity to “know what is coming down the pike” in research advances. Since knowledge is power I felt strongly that research data should be the basis for health improvement and to fight for the scientific truth.
Mentors: First and foremost, my husband Alan Lee Pinkerson, M.D., who was supportive of my interest in Research, taught me the importance to fight for scientific truth and scientific integrity. I was very much influenced by his thinking of the importance of medical research to improve health worldwide. In fact Alan showed me how to develop research proposals, defend them and implement them.
Dr. Richard Day, chairman of the department of pediatrics at the downstate Medical School in Brooklyn, with whom I took my straight pediatric internship and first year residency was a pioneer in the metabolism of premature babies. He was the first to show that you need to feed preemies early instead of the standard accepted ways in the 1960’s when babies were not given any calories for 72 hours. Dr. Day was of course right but at the beginning there was a lot of opposition to this “new concept”. It was then that I learned that if you have research data that have been confirmed eventually the opposition subsides and we move ahead. I found myself thinking of Dr. Day when I was doing research on Omega 3 fatty acids and showed that you need to have a balance of dietary ratio of Omega- 6/Omega -3 for health. Dr. Fred Barter, chief of Endocrinology and Hypertension Branch at the NHLBI, NIH, was very strict about accuracy and detail. You had to know the meaning of every single “datum”. You had to have a satisfactory explanation and if not you had to repeat the experiment, re-review the literature and find out why there was a difference or an inconsistency in the hypothesis and the data. This training helped me when I discovered that purslane is the richest source of the Omega-3 fatty acid Alpha-Linolenic acid since until then the “accepted fact” was that plants did not contain Omega-3 fatty acids.
Advice: It is essential to select a field that you feel you can contribute to. Furthermore your selection must command your interest, and succeed in your field, passion, discipline, dedication and determination. If you are lucky enough, then work is not really work, but a way of life. Try to work with scientists that “have already arrived” and do not expect to grow from your research but consider you a major contributor to their research effort. If you are sure about your data, be persuasive and aim to attract more supporters to your concepts and ideas. You cannot do it alone. New ideas make skeptics out of people. Give credit to your mentors, co-workers and family. I could not have done it without my husband’s support and 3 daughters support. In the end it is always the family that matters.