Five Questions with Heather Wasser

With infant nutrition, Heather Wasser wants to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

Name: Heather Wasser
Position: Research assistant professor, Department of Nutrition
Time at the Gillings School: I’ve been in my current role for 1.5 years, but I first came to the School in 2002 to get my Master of Public Health degree. I came back in 2007 for my doctorate, then wrote a grant that got funded, then became project director for the Mothers and Others project… it’s been a long relationship!

 

Heather snaps a selfie in front of one of the giant trees in Sequoia National Park.

Heather snaps a selfie with a giant tree during a visit to Sequoia National Park.

What I do at UNC Gillings (and why I love it): I design family-based interventions to improve child nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life. Most existing interventions are based on the mother and in the home, so a lot of my work has involved researching options for interventions that include fathers and grandparents, or interventions that take place in childcare centers – basically, I want to address all the people and places that impact a baby’s nutrition. My overarching goals are to decrease the guilt that is placed on families, to counteract bad nutritional messages in the media and to make choosing healthy eating an easy decision.

I never thought that I would become a researcher – it used to be all about practice for me. I found myself working for the health department and having a really hard time, though, because there was no mandate for infant nutrition. I realized heath workers need published guidelines to dictate what they can offer the community. So, here I am researching and loving it! I actually just received a K01 award through the National Institutes of Health to study how an mHealth approach using smart phones can support couples with young infants.

 

I became a lactation consultant: to better inform my research into optimal infant feeding practices. I’ve learned that what happens in the first 72 hours of a child’s life can have a big impact on everything that follows, nutritionally speaking. I wanted to get a real appreciation for the physiology of breastfeeding and the struggles women face with it. I don’t currently practice as a lactation consultant, but I do have strong feelings about the lack of support for new mothers. It makes me so angry when people say, “Breastfeeding is natural.” It’s not that I disagree, it’s that our health-care system doesn’t back that statement up with tools and support. We’re simultaneously telling women that there’s an ideal way for them to care for their babies and then withholding the resources they need to be successful in that.

 

Heather captures the natural beauty of Sequoia using just her phone camera.

Heather captures the natural beauty of Sequoia using just her phone camera.

Something people might not guess about me: is how much I love a good outdoor adventure. Hiking in really tall places makes me happy. Once every year, I take a trip somewhere by myself, which usually overlaps with getting outdoors. Last year, I combined a conference with hiking through Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks and staying in an outdoor Airbnb.

When I’m home and not in the office, you’re most likely to find me at a show. My husband’s in three different bands. He’s good for my social life; if it were up to me, I’d just stay home and nerd out on nutrition research every night. No, wait, I’m not really that boring – I did just get certified in scuba diving last February!

 

My favorite and least favorite foods are: Well, my favorite is a cheese sandwich: It’s just two slices of whole wheat bread – I am a nutritionist – plus a slice of cheddar cheese and some Duke’s mayo. I was a latchkey kid and that was the first food I learned how to make, so it’s very comforting. My least favorite food is soda. I have a rule that I don’t drink my calories! Also, I can do without sweet tea. I’m from St. Louis, and let’s just say that my first sip of sweet tea in the South was… an awakening.

 

When I was little I wanted to grow up and be: a nun! I’m from an Irish Catholic family and my favorite uncle is a priest. I wanted to be like him. (Actually, my dad also was in seminary… until he met my mom at a bar.) After the nun phase passed, I jumped straight to wanting to be a cardiovascular surgeon. I guess I was determined to save people somehow!

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