By Nonie Arora
Ben Wang, a senior Evolutionary Anthropology major from New Jersey, strongly believes we are what we eat. A foodie, scientist, and future health care practitioner, he thinks that changing food habits can improve our nation’s health.
“When we came to Duke, our summer reading book was Eating Animals,” he said. “I felt so many emotions while I was reading the book. It really impacted the way I think about food. In fact, I became a pescetarian (a fish-eating vegetarian).”
Freshman year, Wang knew he had this interest in food, but he didn’t know how to incorporate it into his academic world.
During his second year, Wang started to find his way. “I remembered the topic when I was hunting for a research lab, and started working in Dr. Tso-Pang Yao’s metabolism lab so that I could learn more about how nutrition directly impacts health,” he said.
Wang spent time investigating proteins that increase or decrease the amount of “mitochondrial fusion” that happens in cells. Wang explained that metabolism is how our bodies process food and distribute nutrients, and these compounds help in that process.
“I really enjoyed this lab because the topic was directly related to patient care and our research had direct pharmacologic applications,” Wang said.
In the summer of 2014, he pursued a Bass Connections fellowship in rural Appalachia, in one of the most impoverished counties in the US.
He participated in a Farm-to-Table partnership between local Appalachian farms and a middle school. This partnership was part of a broader program for Appalachian girls. He coordinated the logistics and ended up doing much of the culinary work for the partnership, cooking up delicacies with ingredients like swiss chard, beets, and kale.
“I really wanted to go all the way in introducing a fresh perspective to these women,” Wang said, “I had to convince the girls that these veggies would taste good.”
They did not always like his creations.
He says one student told him, “I’m not going to eat this hippie food.”
But he persevered, and ultimately most of the girls were excited about what they had learned and reevaluated the way they ate.
Maintaining lasting gains will be difficult because much of the food would have been unaffordable to the girls on their own. In the town that they live in, the closest supermarket is a Walmart a half hour away. Other than that, there is a Dollar General and Hillbilly Market, neither of which stock fresh produce, according to Wang.
However, Wang thinks that showing these girls there are food options beyond those that they have experienced was valuable, and that they can choose to strive for them if they want to.
As for Wang, he is headed to dental school in the fall and hopes to include nutritional awareness in his future practice to help his patients achieve better systemic health.