After a national search, Chris Gentile took the reins of the Colorado State University Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition in July. Gentile is excited about a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to shape the department’s path forward. Learn more below in his Q and A.
What is your background and experience and what drew you to the department head role in Food Science and Human Nutrition?
I studied nutrition and exercise physiology as an undergraduate student and then spent three years at CU Boulder receiving my M.S. in integrative physiology. I left Boulder and received my Ph.D. at Virginia Tech in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Exercise. After graduation I was fortunate to be offered a postdoctoral position under the guidance of Mike Pagliassotti (former endowed chair and department head) in the FSHN department at CSU. I knew from my time in Boulder that I loved Colorado and so my wife and then 5-year-old daughter packed up and moved to Fort Collins. We planned on it being a temporary position, but four years later I joined the faculty when a position opened in the department. After ten years as a faculty member, where I spent most of my time teaching and conducting research, Mike Pagliassotti decided to retire, leaving a vacancy in the department head position. I was interested in the position because having been here for 15 years, I’ve developed a strong sense of dedication to the success of the department, including the faculty, staff and students, and I also felt as though my experience and knowledge could be an asset in helping to grow and strengthen the department.
How do you plan to incorporate your experience into the future?
There are a number of experiences and lessons from my training and previous positions that are relevant to this new job. For example, after 15 years I’ve come to know the department really well, including the faculty, staff, the department structure. Having been a research professor here at CSU for the last 10 years I certainly understand the responsibilities of being a faculty member and feel I’m well equipped to help faculty with their various challenges, from starting and managing a research lab to carrying out grant-funded research, and revisions when a grant isn’t funded. Also, through teaching undergraduate and graduate students and serving as the department graduate coordinator, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with CSU students. In my first few months of the position, one of the things I’ve done is meet with numerous students from my classes and our graduate program and ask their opinion about some ideas and what they think the department is doing well and how we can improve. Having these established relationships with our personnel and students has allowed us to hit the ground running on several initiatives to strengthen the department.
What are you most excited about regarding your new role and your potential to make an impact?
We have an incredible group of faculty and staff who work very hard and are dedicated to doing what they can to help the department succeed. That makes my job much easier and much more enjoyable. Despite that solid foundation, our department is going through a period of tremendous change. Over about a four-year period, half of our faculty positions will be vacant. Those departures are creating a number of short-term challenges for us, including filling important roles in teaching, research, advising, and department service. We’ll also lose years of experience and department knowledge that can’t be immediately replaced. However, the vacancies also allow us to make substantial changes to the department. It’s really a once-in-a-generation chance to step back and ask ourselves where do we want the department to go and what are the steps we need to take to get there. With that in mind, we’ve already begun initiatives to update and expand each of our undergraduate curricula, start a new graduate program, enhance the sense of community among faculty, staff, and students, strengthen our industry partnerships, and hire several faculty members who will broaden our research focus. I’m incredibly excited about these changes and how they could have positive impacts on our students, faculty and staff.
What have been your favorite courses/subjects to teach?
I’ve taught several graduate level courses over the years, but my favorite class is a junior/senior level nutrition course simply called Human Nutrition (FSHN 350). I’ve taught the course every semester for over 10 years, so I’ve grown attached to it. On the first day of class I always explain to students that they won’t learn much about dietary guidelines or recommended intake levels, but instead they’ll learn what happens to the food you eat from the time it enters your body to the time it exits. For example, when you eat a carbohydrate-rich meal, what are the specific pathways through which those carbohydrates are digested, absorbed, and metabolized, and how do those pathways affect our health and risk of disease. Students will often tell me they saw some nutrition advice in a documentary or on Instagram and want to know if it’s true. With a little guidance they often realize that they’ve learned enough about how foods are processed in our bodies to be able think through those various processes and answer the question on their own. That’s a big reason why I enjoy the class so much; the information the students learn is incredibly practical and it empowers them to think critically, find answers on their own, and identify misinformation.
What is your research focus?
My lab studies metabolic diseases such diabetes and heart disease. For the last six years we’ve been working very closely with Tiffany Weir in FSHN to examine the connection between those diseases and the gut microbiome. We’ve shown that excess body weight and overnutrition cause changes to the gut microbiome that likely play a role in the development and progression of both heart disease and diabetes. Our most recent work is looking at whether preventing changes to the gut microbiome can be used to prevent or reverse nutrition-related diseases.
What do you like most about living in Fort Collins?
There are so many things that I like about Fort Collins – the parks and easy access to open space; the city’s support of bike riding and continued improvements in bike infrastructure; the incredible local restaurants, shops, and breweries throughout town; the walkability of old town; I could go on. I went to the corgi parade last weekend, I learned that it’s difficult-to-impossible to be unhappy at a corgi parade. My wife and I often comment that if we ever leave Fort Collins there are so many things that we take for granted living here that we’d immediately miss after we left.
What do you like to do for fun?
My life outside of work is admittedly somewhat boring by design. My favorite things to do on weekends are go hiking, watch my kids’ sports games, exercise, spend some time with friends, and most of all spend time with my wife and kids at home.