Raz Shaikh is an expert on fatty acids… and fountain pens.
Name: Raz Shaikh
Position: Associate professor and associate chair of research in the Department of Nutrition
Time at the Gillings School: 15 months
What I do at UNC Gillings (and why I love it): In my lab, we’re interested in understanding how different dietary fatty acids regulate metabolism and immune responses in the context of obesity and its associated complications, such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Our long-term goal is to inform clinical research that ultimately leads to improved dietary recommendations for people based on their sex, age and health status.
What I like best about the Gillings School is that the environment is collegial – extremely so. The resources at UNC are outstanding, as well. That includes access to cutting-edge tools related to immunology and microscopy, plus a range of potential collaborations with other departments within and outside the Gillings School. In other words, we have everything we need in terms of both intellectual input and the tools of the trade.
The pivotal moment that led me to public health: never happened. What I mean is, this career was never my intention! My background is in biophysics, studying the structure of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. When I did my postdoc, I got interested in biochemistry and immunology, and I found myself unexpectedly drawn to learn more about the relationship between the nutrients I studied and human health.
It’s a fascinating vision for the future: A person comes into a clinic with a metabolic disease, they take a quick blood test, and based on research and their health criteria, they learn on the spot that they are deficient in certain nutrients and are a prime candidate for an intervention specifically tailored to improve differing aspects of their immunity, including inflammation and infection. This vision is what drives my work in public health – the thought that while a potential therapeutic won’t work for everyone, it will work perfectly for some people. I want to help link people with the right interventions.
I’m originally from: Indianapolis. My mom worked as a chemist and my dad worked in insurance. I stayed there until heading to Baltimore for my postdoc, during which I met a psychology professor online. We got married 10 months later. She was on the faculty at East Carolina University (ECU), and I eventually found a position there and moved to North Carolina. More recently, I accepted this role at UNC, and life is good – but she still has to manage the commute to ECU!
Outside of work: I really like fountain pens. My appreciation goes back 20 years to the first pen I collected, which I actually inherited from my grandfather. He earned his medical degree and a doctorate in anatomy, and this was the pen he used to write his dissertation and prescriptions. These days, I’m less of a collector, because I spend all my free time playing guitar and hiking with my son, daughter and wife. I’m obsessed with progressive rock and metal, but my nearly six-year-old daughter is more of a Beyoncé fan. Sometimes we’ll be in the car, though, and she’ll say, “Dad, put on Metallica or Rush!” When that happens, it always makes my day.
My best advice for students of public health: Keep learning and soak up as much knowledge as you can. Stay open-minded with your careers. School is a part of your education and a stepping stone to many new possibilities that open up with hard work, dedication and creativity.
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