PhD Student Spotlight: Ioanna Yiannakou (Nutrition & Metabolism)

Ioanna Yiannakou is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Medical Sciences doctoral program in the Program in Biomedical Sciences: Nutrition & Metabolism. She graduated from GMS with an MS in Nutrition & Metabolism in 2019. In 2022, Ioanna won first place for Clinical Oral Presentations at Evans Day. Ioanna is also an international student from Cyprus. Read more about her below!

Tell me about your journey to Boston. What brought you to the area? Where did you do your undergrad? What was your major? 

Nutritional science has been my passion since childhood. Growing up around traditional Greek-Cypriot Mediterranean foods prepared by my family and receiving valuable support from a dietician in my early life all led me to study Nutrition and Dietetics in the UK. During my clinical practice as a dietitian, I gave several public lectures in collaboration with non-profit organizations about the importance of nutrition in cancer prevention.

My work as a healthcare provider and health educator led me to appreciate the importance of being able to evaluate scientific evidence. I became increasingly aware of the many controversies surrounding diet and cardiometabolic diseases. I realized that the results of the many studies I was reading, whether from well- or poorly-conducted clinical and epidemiological studies, could have enormous impacts on nutrition advice and policy. As a result, I knew that I wanted to expand my own understanding of scientific methodology. My desire to improve the quality of evidence in the field of nutrition for the prevention of cardiometabolic diseases led me to find the best graduate program that will fulfill my research goals.

Why do you want to work in the field of Nutrition & Metabolism? What brought you to the Nutrition & Metabolism program at GMS specifically? 

I chose to enrol in the BU GMS MS in Nutrition and Metabolism because of the strong reputation and cross-training that the program provides in both basic sciences and nutritional epidemiology. This course of study opened the door for me to develop my skills and lead my own independent project in epidemiology and translational research. Specifically, my graduate-level classes, such as molecular nutrition, focused on nutrition’s physiological and biochemical basis and related inter-dependent mechanistic pathways. I applied this knowledge to inspire and generate hypotheses to be examined in nutritional epidemiological studies with health-related outcomes. I added classes in epidemiology and scientific methods, as well as practical statistical programming skills (in SAS). With this combination of scientific and epidemiologic training, I joined [Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine & Epidemiology Lynn] Moore’s [lab] to carry out epidemiological studies. My master’s thesis research project, which is now published (beyond excited!), showed that higher adherence to a Mediterranean-style diet was protective against cancer risk among Americans in the Framingham Offspring cohort.

Why did you decide to stay at GMS for your PhD?

My work as a clinical dietitian and my experience in epidemiologic research have instilled in me the desire to become an outstanding nutrition research scientist. That is still my goal. I am now very excited that I am a PhD candidate, and I am able to fulfill my ultimate career goal. My goal is to integrate my interests in nutrition at the molecular level with my interests in the scientific methodology in clinical and population-based research.

The GMS [Program in Biomedical Sciences] in Nutrition & Metabolism, with its solid core curriculum, combined with the many outstanding clinical research opportunities at Boston University, was a perfect fit for my interests. Along with my previous clinical practice, the Nutrition & Metabolism program placed me in a unique position to conduct truly strong and independent translational research projects.

Tell me about your research. What does your dissertation focus on? 

I am co-mentored by Dr. Lynn L. Moore and Dr Michelle T. Long at the Preventive Medicine and Epidemiology lab at BU’s Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine. My Ph.D. dissertation research focuses on using traditional epidemiological methods to better understand the role of diet as a modifiable factor in amending the life-course progression of cardiometabolic diseases, specifically non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

NAFLD is an umbrella term for a disorder estimated to affect almost two billion people worldwide. Although diet has been extensively studied to prevent several cardiometabolic diseases like cancer or cardiovascular disease, we know very little about NAFLD. Therefore, my PhD thesis investigates the effects of various food-based dietary patterns on NAFLD risk. I use SAS programming language to analyze data in two generation cohorts in the Framingham Heart studies. We found that higher adherence to a healthy dietary pattern, like the DASH diet, was protective against NAFLD in men and women; while low-carbohydrate diets, but not low-fat diets were detrimental to women’s liver fat. We also identified high-risk groups that might benefit more from following a DASH diet than others.

What are your longer-term goals in this field?

I am convinced that lifestyle measures like diet are among the most effective and valuable preventive measures for chronic disease. My long-term career goal is to become a professor conducting strong and independent translational research that will inform public health programming and policy in the US and worldwide.

Is there anyone in your life who inspired your decision to pursue this career field?

Both of my dissertation advisors inspired me to start my career in nutritional epidemiology. Dr. Moore was my master’s thesis advisor and is now serving as a co-mentor for my PhD.  Dr. Moore has always sat next to me looking at the data and teaching me how to read the story behind the numbers and critically analyze data using different and innovative methodologies.

I met Dr. Long at the beginning of my PhD journey for a lab rotation; now, she serves as a co-mentor for my PhD. As a clinician, it has been very inspiring how she can translate research findings to clinical practice always looking for patients’ best interest.

What are your best memories from your time at BU in this program?  

One of the best and fun memories from my time at BU was when I was awarded the BU Wellbeing Challenge Award for initiating a YouTube channel called “BU NutriGeeks”. I used this platform to provide evidence-based nutritional and educational information and tips on preparing easy and healthy recipes. In addition, I had the chance to invite some of my BU fellows as video guests to cook together!

As a student, what are some ways that you overcome challenges associated with being in graduate school?

One of the challenges I faced during the beginning of my PhD was balancing my wellness with the heavy workload of grad school. I overcame this challenge by sticking to my schedule, taking several short breaks during the day, and exercising daily. This helped me to be efficient at my work and, at the same time, allow myself time to do other things that I love!

Any advice you’d give to GMS students starting out on their master’s degree or PhD journeys? 

When choosing your PhD lab, make sure that you are interested in the research topic; but most importantly, try to get to know your advisor/mentor and how they operate and work in their lab, not just what cool projects they work on.

What do you like to do for fun in Boston?  

I love cooking Mediterranean food for my friends, going to escape rooms, and hiking in New Hampshire!