Profile of a FWIS: What's My Nutritional Supplement Doing To Me?

FWIS 152, Nutritional Supplements: Real Remedies or Shady Science?

An Interview with Mary Purugganan, Instructor

How did you get interested in this particular topic?
I noticed the use of dietary supplements was increasing rapidly in the U.S. and that two-thirds of college students now take supplements regularly—more than the general adult population! Whether we want to promote health, treat disease, or improve appearance, we are turning to vitamins, herbs, protein powders, and food extracts purported to enhance our health and ward off disease.  As a biochemist, I became interested in the biological mechanisms for these molecules that aren’t quite foods and aren’t quite drugs. Do they do what they’re supposed to do? If so, how? Are they safe? How do we know what we’re getting? Most consumers don’t know the answers to these questions, but we continue to put our faith in these molecules and trust that there is some “magic” in their biological actions in the body.

What do you think is interesting/distinctive about this FWIS course?
We will explore supplements used by college students and the general public for a variety of reasons: to treat or prevent diseases such as cancer or depression, to improve fitness, or to increase mental functioning.  We will ask why fish oil is so beneficial and whether creatine really works to build muscle. We will take a field trip to the Vitamin Shoppe to investigate the sale of supplements and analyze a documentary produced by the supplement industry. Students will learn about the FDA, evidence-based medicine, human biology, and the marketing of supplements. This D3 course (one of only two offered this semester) will explore aspects of human biology and pharmacology, but is appropriate for all majors.

What is one thing you hope students draw from this FWIS?
If students are taking a supplement or considering it, I hope this class will provide a better understanding of the biological actions of these molecules and how students can evaluate whether a particular supplement—marketed now or in the future—is safe and effective.  As a FWIS, I hope that students will learn that communication is a fundamental part of scientific investigation, the health industry, and the college experience…and that practicing writing and speaking is the best way to improve!