Department head teaches, researches in Japan as part of Fulbright experience

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A. Catharine Ross, occupant of the Dorothy Foehr Huck Chair and head of the Department of Nutritional Sciences, spent five months in Tokyo, Japan, as a Fulbright lecturer and researcher. 

During her stay from September to February, Ross conducted research, taught an advanced nutrition course to undergraduate students, gave lectures to graduate students on United States food policies and implications, and presented other lectures at several universities and research institutes. 

“This experience intrigued me because I’m interested in the nutrition transition going on in developing countries. Japan is well developed, but still undergoing significant dietary change,” Ross said.

“Living in Japan, in the center of Tokyo, was an education in itself — although I have visited Japan several times, the day-to-day life of shopping, transportation and getting to know new people was remarkably interesting,” she said. 

Ross’s research experience while in Tokyo, part of an ongoing project, was on "washoku," the name for the traditional Japanese diet. 

“Due to its unique qualities and association with Japanese culture, washoku has been granted Intangible Cultural Heritage status by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO),” Ross said. “The traditional diet is rich in vegetables, fish and other seafoods, and rice, and quite low in fat. It is also highly seasonal and regional, which makes it very interesting and special.”

An Intangible Cultural Heritage is a practice, representation, expression, knowledge or skill; or instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces that are considered by UNESCO to be part of a place's cultural heritage. 

Findings of Ross’s work on washoku are forthcoming. 

Ross’s host institution was Kagawa Nutrition University (KNU), a school with a history of nearly 80 years of teaching nutritional sciences and food culture, training registered dieticians and graduate students. 

The class she instructed at KNU, “Advanced unit on nutrition in English,” focused on the body’s metabolism during obesity.

“This unit focused on the interactions of diet, metabolism and inflammation, organized around three main topics,” Ross said. “Each section began with a review of anatomy and physiology of the organs involved, followed by biochemical pathways that are important in each, and the impact of inflammation on their metabolic processes.”

Ross said her students were particularly interested in how and what Americans eat, how dietary guidelines are formulated in the United States, and how nutrition policy in the United States affects registered dietician jobs. 

“My students were interested in learning how America’s food policies relate to school lunches,” Ross said. “For example, many cereals and breads in the United States are fortified with vitamins and minerals. There are no similar fortification policies in Japan.”

Additionally, there are many differences in how food is eaten and prepared in schools in Japan, compared to the United States, Ross said, which was a major topic of conversation during class. For example, in Japan students eat their lunches at their desks. The food is made elsewhere and brought into the school. In the United States, students typically eat lunches together in a cafeteria, and most often food is made in-house. 

Health conditions in Japan compared to the United States was another area of interest for Ross’ students. In Japan, diabetes rates are increasing even though many people with diabetes are not considered obese by American body-mass index standards.

“Obesity is defined earlier in Japan,” Ross said. “Japanese people experience diabetes with a lower body-mass index than Americans do.”

In addition to teaching at KNU, Ross also attended and presented at two scientific society research conferences. 

One presentation to the hospital at the University of Kyoto, “Exploring Nutritional Means to Alleviate Fatty Liver Disease,” addressed non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which is the most common form of chronic liver disease and affects one-third of the population in Western countries. 

Ross’ research suggests omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may be a useful strategy to suppress NAFLD and could have use in the clinic for carbohydrate-susceptible people.  

Also during her stay, Ross appeared on a science education TV show, "GATTEN!", in Tokyo, where her host institution’s research on folate was highlighted. 

Ross said she plans to use what she learned in Tokyo to inform her teaching at Penn State, and feels sharing her experience will enlighten her students to some of Japan’s current top challenges and topic of interests, such as economic and health disparities, its aging population, and its increase in diabetes rates. 

“The Fulbright Program concept is that grantees will be able to communicate American values and culture to those they meet in their host country, and that they will return to the United States with a better understanding of the culture they visited and, as well, of their own country’s role in the world,” Ross said. 

Ross added, “I feel my visit accomplished those goals. Having a welcoming host institution is really important for a successful Fulbright experience, and KNU went out of its way to host my visit very well.”

The Fulbright Scholars Program is sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs section of the U.S. State Department. The program provides funding for scholars, teachers and professionals to undertake advanced research and teaching activities around the world. Penn State supports the efforts of its faculty to participate in the program through the Office of Global Programs.

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Last Updated April 30, 2018