NSF Fellowship Has Milk Bioactives Program Student Dreaming Big


Dave Dallas, a graduate student of Nutritional Biology in the German lab and a student in the Milk Bioactives and Children’s Health Programs of the Foods for Health Institute, was the recent recipient of a competitive NSF fellowship. Mr. Dallas’s current project examines milk absorption and digestion in the infant gut, focusing on differences between premature (pre-term) and term infants. The goal is to discover the specific ways in which digestion and absorption are affected in pre-term infants.

Mr. Dallas was pursuing a graduate degree in public health when he came to the German Lab. When Mr. Dallas became acquainted with proteomics and metabolomics, the simultaneous study of all proteins and all metabolites in a system respectively, he was inspired to apply these powerful techniques to research in infant health, specifically in pre-term infants. In collaboration with Dr. Mark Underwood, the chief neonatologist at the UC Davis Medical Center, Mr. Dallas is working on understanding the digestion of milk in pre-term infants and how this process differs from term infants. His current research methods provide him with a unique look at milk digestion and absorption. In the past, most experimentation and investigation was done in vitro; his in vivo investigation of milk digestion can provide new insights into how the pre-term infant’s gut functions.

With the new NSF fellowship, Mr Dallas will be able to expand the project to include new collaborations with researchers in the fields of analytical chemistry, molecular biology, bioinformatics, and microbiology, to include a wide array of components in milk. These studies will build the knowledge base of how the pre-term infant’s underdeveloped digestive system compares with that of the term infant, which will enable scientists to improve infant feeding strategies in this vulnerable group.

Premature birth is on the rise in the United States, and the developmental problems faced by pre-term infants as a result of poor nutrition are serious. “One of the biggest environmental inputs is diet,” Dallas notes. Thus far, parenteral (intravenous) nutrition and formula-feeding have been disappointingly ineffective with pre-term infants. “To find feeding solutions, we have to find ways to get proteins, lipids, and oligosaccharides in the correct proportions and forms for premature infants,” says Dallas. A more complete picture of pre-term infant milk digestion and absorption could fill the great gap in pre-term infant dietary investigation.

This large-scale collaboration could also provide the tools needed to better understand pre-term infants’ nutritional needs. The tools and technologies being developed in this project can also be applied to other population groups with unique dietary needs, such as athletes, or elderly populations. “I [am] very much interested in real-world solutions to health concerns,” Dallas says. His planned collaboration is one step towards personalized nutritional solutions for a wide spectrum of vulnerable populations.