Fuli (Tracey) He’s long journey from Shanghai, China, to the UNC Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) in Kannapolis has culminated in extraordinary personal and professional achievements.
This bright 25-year-old is the first student to earn a Master’s Degree in Nutrition from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health while working in research at the NRI. For her master’s project, Tracey used a mouse model to study how maternal supplementation with flaxseed oil during pregnancy and nursing alters memory-related genes in the brain of the male pups and to see how these alterations are regulated by epigenetic mechanisms. (Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene activity that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence.)
And to add a recent honor to the list of Tracey’s accomplishments, the International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience in May 2014 published a scholarly paper that she authored along with NRI scientists Dr. Daniel Lupu and Dr. Mihai Niculescu. “Her study demonstrated for the first time, to our knowledge, that flaxseed oil can modulate the epigenetic switches that regulate the activation of genes involved in memory and learning,” said her mentor Dr. Niculescu.
Having earned her B.S. in Biology from Fudan University in China in 2011, Tracey dreamed of studying nutrition as a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill. The Gillings School is considered the premier public school of public health in the United States with a top-ranked nutrition program.
Tracey was accepted by UNC and began work in the NRI lab of Dr. Niculescu, Assistant Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry in the UNC Nutrition Department.
“Dr. Niculescu was interested in having a master’s student,” Tracey said, adding that she was drawn to his scientific exploration of maternal obesity, epigenetics, and the long-term health of children.
“From the time I ended our first telephone conversation with her – she was in China at that time – I knew she had great potential,” said Dr. Niculescu.
While at the NRI, Tracey attended UNC classes through videoconferencing, a situation that wasn’t always ideal for her. But she succeeded academically with the support of Dr. Niculescu and Dr. Lupu, a postdoctoral research associate in the Niculescu lab.
“Dr. Niculescu mentored me and helped me to focus on my study and research,” Tracey said. The relative “quiet” of the advanced lab facilities at the NRI guaranteed few distractions and created an atmosphere conducive to learning.
“He encouraged me to think independently and look at things in different ways. He pushed me to be my best. This helped me progress as an individual and, in the future, as a professional.”
Tracey now works as a research technician in the lab of Dr. Guibing Chen, assistant professor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, located in the NRI building. These days her research focuses on development of high-fiber bread, enriched with corn and oat bran, using a process called microfluidization.
“This has the potential to increase the availability of nutrients in the bread while removing the unpleasant taste of the bran,” Tracey said. The goal of the research is to create bread with high nutritional values that also tastes good.
Wherever her career path leads, Tracey holds fast to her passion for food, nutrition and human health.
“And I hope that I’ll always feel this way.”
“Perinatal α-linolenic acid availability alters the expression of genes related to memory and to epigenetic machinery, and the Mecp2 DNA methylation in the whole brain of mouse offspring”