Sarah Booth takes helm of Tufts research center on aging

Sarah Booth, the newly appointed Director of the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA), poses for a portrait on Dec. 9, 2016. Courtesy Anna Miller for Tufts University

Tufts selected Sarah Booth to direct the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts after serving as interim director since October 2016 and researching at the center for 25 years, according to an email message sent to the Tufts community by the Tufts Office of the President on Feb. 13. Booth succeeds Simin Meydani, who was promoted to vice provost for research a year and a half ago.

Booth’s appointment arrived amid threats that the federal government would defund the center, which was established in 1977 as a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Tufts. Its researchers study obesity, the microbiome, dietary prevention of cancer and vitamin research, among other topics.

Under the direction of the office of outgoing Provost David Harris, a search committee sought out internal and external candidates, partnering with leadership consulting firm Spencer Stuart and including researchers and administrators at the center over the course of 18 months, according to HNRCA Administrative Director Mark Wesley.

“About midway through the [search] process, the university was informed by the Department of Agriculture that [in] the federal budget proposed by the President [for fiscal year 2018] … the HNRCA and a number of other national research centers were posed for being defunded,” Wesley told the Daily.

Bess Dawson-Hughes, director of the Bone Metabolism Laboratory at HNRCA, elaborated on the funding issue.

“[Threats of defunding] did slow the search process, because it’s hard to get people interested in coming to a place that may close imminently,” Dawson-Hughes said.

The news had the opposite effect on Booth, however. Booth said she did not initially consider applying for the directorship, but when the search process hit a roadblock due to threats of defunding, she felt motivated to do so.

Booth said the center’s work, mission and the new research goals under consideration are worth fighting for. She added that education was central to the HNRCA’s future activities and its participation in Tufts’ Brighter World fundraising initiative, which was launched last November.

“I really believe that we have a responsibility to share our passions and our research and our activities with students … from undergraduates through graduates to postdoctoral fellows to young scientists,” she said. “I think that pipeline is really important.”

Booth’s colleagues say her long history at the center, positive attitude and motivation to move the center forward make her a strong candidate.

“She has a great interest in ensuring that the center prospers,” Wesley said. “She was joined by a number of very qualified external qualified candidates that enjoyed international reputations in this field … but she was the absolutely the right candidate to be selected.”

Naomi Rosenberg, special advisor to the HNRCA director and former Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences dean, also commented on Booth’s enthusiasm and fitness for the position.

“Sarah is a wonderful choice,” Rosenberg told the Daily in an email. “She has a great passion for nutrition research and a strong commitment to the mission of the HNRCA … Her collaborative leadership style will help her build on the strong research achievements by scientists at the Center and ensures a bright future for the HNRCA.”

Dawson-Hughes also noted Booth’s vision and collaborative style.

“One of her many strengths is that she has built the infrastructure within the center that enables the scientists to be more effective and more efficient,” Dawson-Hughes said.

Dawson-Hughes said she has worked with Booth in the past and is pleased with Booth’s selection. She also added that she expects the center to continue to produce strong scientific research and overcome political hurdles in the future.

Booth told the Daily she is optimistic about the future of the HNRCA, but that there is still work to be done. According to Booth, just before the announcement of her appointment as director, the USDA informed Tufts and the HNRCA that the center is once again on the list of programs that could be defunded in fiscal year 2019. This is not any reason to be alarmed, Booth cautioned, since there “are a lot of people who are passionate about what we do.”

In March, Booth, along with the directors of two other federally funded nutrition research facilities, will travel to Washington, D.C. to educate Congressional representatives and staff on the increasing importance of nutrition and aging research. Booth will be carrying the vision of the HNRCA, bringing strong collaborative leadership skills and a scientific background to the position.

The HNRCA regularly produces scientific research on nutrition, healthy aging and other related areas, Wesley said. Going forward, according to Wesley, the center will explore other initiatives, including cardiovascular health, neuroscience and genomics.

“I really commend the Tufts University leadership for their support of us during this very challenging time,” Booth said. “I’m very optimistic.”