Sonja Nodland, PhD RD&A Senior Scientist

Published on: Mar 9 2020

Meet Sonja Nodland, PhD, RD&A Senior Scientist, Wellmune® in conversation with Anne-Marie O’Sullivan from the Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute

Our scientists bring a unique blend of experience and insight to the work they do. We caught up with Sonja Nodland, who is part of the team responsible for developing the science supporting the immune health ingredient Wellmune®, to talk to her about how she came to work in the area of human immunology and what keeps her curious. 

Anne-Marie: Tell us about your area of focus and your role.

Sonja: At Kerry, my responsibility is to coordinate the research program that provides the scientific backing for the functional ingredients within our ProActive Health group, which is the group at Kerry responsible for ingredients like Wellmune® and the probiotic GanedenBC30®. I was originally brought in to coordinate the human immunology research showing Wellmune’s efficacy and to find markers in blood (biomarkers) that indicate Wellmune is working. My role has expanded to include work with GanedenBC30®.

What sparked your interest in science?

Sonja: It’s just always been part of who I am, and I think I’m a naturally curious person. As a child, I was diagnosed with leukemia (a cancer of the immune system),  and so I was exposed to biomedical science at an early age. Luckily, I was treated and have been completely healthy and cancer-free ever since. This formative experience did leave me with a deep curiosity about how the human body works, or sometimes doesn’t work. My experience was a natural bridge into the field of human immunology.

The human immune system is very complex and there are many open questions, so working in this area has filled a need for me to always have a new unanswered question and a new challenge to work on.

Why did you choose the specialty that you’re in, what was the pathway?

Sonja: Because I was only three years old when I was told that I had cancer, it was described to me by saying that my blood was sick. As a curious person I immediately wanted to know why.

Even at that early age, I realized I first had to learn all about the cells that were sick in order to understand why they got sick, which is really all about immunology.  Blood is a key part of the immune system, so I had a natural transition from my personal experience to learning about immunology – both from the curious kid perspective and then, as I got further into science, the physiology of how the body works.  And how sometimes it doesn’t work – how it becomes diseased. As I moved forward in my education I chose to train in the areas of human immunology and cancer biology, where these two fields really intersect.

Looking over your career so far, what have been particular highlights for you?

Sonja: One highlight for me has been the research I did during my time as a graduate student and postdoc, which focused on how the cells that became cancerous in my leukemia got that way.  We researched how these cells develop in normal, healthy people which helps other researchers understand how the cells become cancerous in childhood leukemia. Being able to contribute knowledge that is the basis for understanding why some childhood leukemia is curable, and other kinds are not, was a very powerful and gratifying experience.  I feel I have been able to “pay forward” the previous research that had invented a cure for me decades ago because my research is still contributing to finding better treatments for childhood leukemia today.

Looking at the food and beverage landscape in your field of work, what’s stimulating your curiosity now?

Sonja: One of the things most interesting to me – and I’m not a food scientist, I come at this from a very different angle – is the recognition of the importance of the human microbiome (not just the gut microbiome) to human health. Also interesting is that humans are really a superorganism made up both of human cells as well as bacteria, viruses, and fungi.  I think the realization that essentially everything we put into our body – the majority, of course, is what we eat – affects these organisms one way or another is a powerful insight and opens the door to a lot of questions.

I think the most interesting questions in food and beverage right now are about how the food choices we make – everything from eating raw foods to what sorts of fortified foods and specifically designed foods that are ‘better for you’ –affect our health. And, each of these choices has a daily effect on our microbiome. It’s a bit dizzying when you stop to think about it.

In the area of human immunology, what’s most exciting in terms of research right now?

Sonja:  I am fascinated with the research exploring how the immune system is exquisitely integrated into every system in the body as well as in a very close relationship with all the “foreign” members of the human microbiome. Everything that we eat is affecting the microbiome, and because of the microbiome’s close relationship with the immune system, what we eat is likely affecting our immune system.

This idea of ‘nutritional immunology’  – which has been developing for 10 years or so but is now really starting to come to the forefront –  is one of the most exciting developments in immunology. Previously, trying to affect the immune system has been the realm of pharmaceutical companies.  Now, I see a paradigm shift in the way people think about affecting the immune system, being led out of Western Europe. Food is not necessarily medicine, but food has very important health effects beyond providing calories and has direct effects on the immune system.

Looking ahead, if you had a crystal ball, what problems do you think will be solved in immunology over the next 5 years?

Sonja: In the next 5 years, I think we’re going to have a general outline of what a healthy microbiome looks like and, with that, a general outline of what a healthy immune system looks like. This means we will be better able to determine when it is not functioning properly, which is the first step to fixing any problem. I suspect these developments will pave the way for innovations in personalized nutrition.

Thinking of newcomers to your field – what advice would you give them?

Sonja: I think in general, science is becoming ever more inter-disciplinary, especially when compared to decades past when researchers were more narrowly focused in a particular field. So the advice I would give is to read broadly, in a lot of different fields, because you never know where the next insight will come from that might inspire not just your solution but the next health innovation.

Look and read outside of the field of immunology. Don’t just read immunology, but also read about topics like physical chemistry, or computer science, biostatistics, neurology, and genetics.

What content would you recommend on Kerry Health & Nutrition Institute in the realm of immune health?

I think the following articles are useful and clear and give a good overview, I’d recommend them if you want to learn more about immune and digestive health.:

What Does Digestive Health Really Mean?

The Role of Food in Maintaining Immune Health in Ageing

And tell us about some key current reading for your discipline?

Sonja: The journal article that has had the greatest influence on what I’m working on today is:

Quintin, J., et al., Candida albicans infection affords protection against reinfection via functional reprogramming of monocytes. Cell Host Microbe, 2012. 12(2): p. 223-32.

And your top ‘must-read’ science books?

Sonja: These have really expanded my thinking about my field, even though many of them are completely outside it:

‘Hyperspace’ by Michio Kaku, ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’ by Simon Singh and not least ‘The Medusa and the Snail’ by Lewis Thomas.

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