Heidi Vanden Brink, Ph.D, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition in Texas A&M’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Bryan-College Station, has had a longtime interest in nutrition and human physiology.
Vanden Brink, who joined the department in September, has more than a decade of clinical research experience in nutrition, metabolic health and female human reproductive physiology and endocrinology. Her research expertise spans the women’s reproductive lifespan from menarche to menopause.
“We are expanding more into human translational nutrition research, which we expect will be a major growth area for the department,” said David Threadgill, Ph.D., University Distinguished Professor, Tom and Jean McMullin Chair of Genetics in the School of Medicine and head of Texas A&M’s Department of Nutrition. “Dr. Vanden Brink is the first scientist we have brought into the department whose focus will be to apply this translational model in a way that will directly benefit humans.”
The concept of translational nutrition involves using knowledge from basic research and applying it to human clinical studies with the goal of directly improving human health.
Research and scientific interests
“My goal is to build an interdisciplinary, translational research program that intersects nutrition, metabolism and reproductive physiology,” Vanden Brink said. “The overarching aim is to detect, understand and prevent the integrative mechanisms responsible for aberrant reproductive development in the years surrounding menarche.”
She said the transition through puberty and the early post-menarcheal years, also known as the adolescent reproductive transition, represents a critical window of development in young women.
Menarche, or an adolescent female’s very first period, usually occurs between the ages of 10 and 15. According to Vanden Brink, polycystic ovary syndrome, PCOS, can occur during this developmental window after menarche, which can result in lifelong reproductive and metabolic dysfunction and reduced quality of life.
PCOS is a highly prevalent endocrine disorder affecting one in eight women, associated with menstrual irregularity, polycystic ovarian morphology assessed via ultrasound imaging, and androgen excess. PCOS is closely associated with conditions such as obesity, infertility, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.
“My research program focuses on the critical window of development during the peri-menarcheal years when young girls just begin to menstruate,” Vanden Brink said. “I am particularly interested in understanding how dietary intake, as well as metabolic conditions associated with obesity, may influence reproductive development in adolescence and lead to conditions like PCOS.”
Education and professional experience
Vanden Brink earned a bachelor’s degree in physiology and masters’ degree in health sciences with an emphasis on reproductive physiology from the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. In 2019, she earned her doctorate in nutritional sciences from Cornell University, where she was also a postdoctoral associate from 2019-2022. During that same time frame, she was a visiting researcher in the Department of Endocrinology at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri.
Since 2012, Vanden Brink has maintained her American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography certification in obstetrical and gynecological ultrasound.
Vanden Brink supported the undergraduate courses of Human Anatomy and Physiology and Nutrition, Health and Society at Cornell University as a teaching assistant. She also had been a teaching assistant supporting the Experimental Basis of Physiology course at the University of Saskatchewan. And she has served as a guest lecturer on topics such as endocrinology and scientific infrastructure at Cornell University and on human reproductive endocrinology at the University of Saskatchewan.
She also developed and taught a methods course as a doctoral student in the Lujan Lab at Cornell University on ultrasound image analysis of ovarian morphology, which has since been taken by undergraduates, medical trainees and graduate students.
“This course was designed to train researchers to conduct reproducible assessments of antral follicle populations and ovarian size,” Vanden Brink said. “We have shown that real-time assessments of antral follicles typically collected in clinical settings are unreliable, which limits their utility in research. This course obviates that concern and provides a structured approach to rigorous ultrasound image analysis.”
At Texas A&M, Vanden Brink teaches critical appraisal and communication in the nutrition sciences. She is also actively building a collaborative research team within her laboratory in the Department of Nutrition, thus far consisting of one graduate student, one lab manager, four undergraduates and one medical student.
Scholarships, fellowships, awards, grants
Vanden Brink has received fellowships and scholarships across her graduate and postgraduate training, including a 2020 Postdoctoral Fellowship, 2016 Doctoral Foreign Student Award and a 2011 Fredrick Banting and Charles Best Canada Master’s Graduate Scholarship – Master’s Award, all from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. She has also been honored with a University of Saskatchewan Master’s Thesis Scholarship and several small travel and abstract awards.
As a new investigator, she is the co-primary investigator on collaborative grants from the Cornell Magnetic Resonance Imaging Facility and the Cornell Office for Academic Integration.
“Dr. Vanden Brink is a very dedicated and accomplished researcher, and we know she will make great contributions to the department,” Threadgill said. “Her emphasis on translational nutrition research represents the direction in which more of our research will be going, so in that regard, we consider her a leader in this important area.”