Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Andrew K. Benson, Director, Nebraska Food for Health Center
Dr. Andrew Benson is the Food for Health Presidential Chair and Director, Nebraska Food for Health Center in the Department of Food Science and Technology at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He graduated from UT Health San Antonio with a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology in 1992.
1) When did you first become interested in science?
During my senior year of high school in Ankeny, Iowa, I somehow ended up in a physiology course with an outstanding science teacher. We covered a chapter on regulation of lactose utilization and the lac operon in E. coli and that really grabbed my attention. I can distinctly remember being intrigued about how genetic information is turned into energy production in a live cell.
2) Why did you pick UT Health San Antonio and your program?
My primary interests were in bacterial genetics, pathogenesis, and immunology, and I looked around the country for programs that excelled in at least two of the three areas. The Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UT Health San Antonio was one of the few that had outstanding faculty in all three areas with exciting research programs, so it ranked in the top tier of programs that I applied to. After visiting UT Health San Antonio and a couple of other schools, it was clear that the program in microbiology and immunology at UT Health San Antonio was the program for me.
3) Tell me more about your career path.
By the time I entered graduate school in 1987, it was already my goal to become a professor at a large, state university in the Midwest. My training at UT Health San Antonio really paved the way to make that happen. I was a student of Dr. William Haldenwang at UT Health San Antonio and received outstanding training in bacterial genetics and molecular biology, studying regulation of stress adaptation in the model organism Bacillus subtilis. After graduate school, I trained as an NIH postdoctoral Fellow in the department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University where I studied biosynthesis and assembly of the flagellum in the bacterial model of Caulobacter crescentus. I then returned to Midwest in 1996 to join the faculty in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of Nebraska, where I have remained for my entire career. I moved through the ranks to a full Professor in 2007, and received the W. W. Marshall Distinguished Professorship in 2009. In 2017 I became the Allen Food for Health Presidential Chair and entered into a partial administrative appointment as Director of the Nebraska Food for Health Center. Outside of the university, I am a partner in two different companies (a bioinformatics company and a biopharma company) and I serve as a consultant and expert witness in the legal sector for litigation of cases involving outbreaks of foodborne illness.
4) Tell me about your current career, what do you do?
Since 1996, I have led a research program focused on genome evolution in foodborne pathogens and in 2010 began to study the genetic architecture of host-microbiome interactions. From 1996-2017 I also taught the pathogen sections of lecture and laboratory courses in food microbiology and a graduate course in genomics of foodborne pathogens. In 2017, I established the Nebraska Food for Health Center (NFHC), where I now lead a group of 24 faculty who are focused on diet-microbiome-health interactions. The center is focused on dietary modulation of the gut microbiome and it connects discovery sciences (aimed at defining microbiome-active components in grains from crop plants) with translational animal models and human clinical studies to establish efficacy and mechanism through which such components function. NFHC is funded through a portfolio of endowments from philanthropic foundations and competitive grants and contracts. About 40 percent of my time is spent doing administrative work for the center. The remaining 60 percent of my time is spent leading research in the discovery sciences, specifically working with plant geneticists to map loci and pathways in crop plants that affect the human gut microbiome.
5) What is a day like in your job?
Mornings are often spent meeting with project managers, upper administration at the University, or leadership at the University Foundation to deal with the logistical, budgetary, and policy-oriented tasks of the center. The remainder of the day is spent meeting with faculty collaborators, students, and trainees to plan and evaluate data coming from the discovery research program. Since taking on the leadership role for NFHC, I had to give up my teaching appointment, which I really miss.
6) How did the education you get at UT Health San Antonio prepare you?
I received intense training in bacterial genetics and molecular biology at UT Health San Antonio, which taught me how to think deeply about scientific questions. The graduate program in microbiology and immunology (including coursework, departmental seminars, etc.) also played an important role, giving me a broad view of microbiology, pathogenesis, and immunology, and teaching me how to look at scientific questions through multiple lenses. I credit former and current members of the UT Health San Antonio faculty (Dr. William Haldenwang, Dr. David Kolodrubetz, Dr. Joel Baseman, Dr. Vojo Deretic, Dr. Keith Krolick, Dr. Judy Teale) with teaching me how to think about science in these powerful ways. It has enabled me to incorporate genomics, bioinformatics, population genetics, and microbiomics into my research program as these approaches evolved and it enabled me to work with faculty at the interfaces of different disciplines (e.g. statistics, computational sciences, animal and plant genetics).
7) What is the most challenging part of your work?
Time management. Balancing time between research, administrative duties, and start-up companies is a real challenge. Things I lose the most sleep over—making sure we have enough funding for center staff and making sure I spend enough time with my students and trainees.
8) What is the most rewarding part of your work?
The rewards have changed over the years. Initially, it was seeing my students succeed, and while that is still very rewarding, I am at a stage in my career where it is also rewarding to mentor young faculty to success and rewarding to see big ideas you have developed be implemented into successful new programs and centers.
9) What has been your proudest achievement?
a. First and foremost, my wife of 32 years, my children, and now my grandchildren.
b. Being selected to give the “Nebraska Lecture.” This distinguished lecture series is sponsored by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor’s office and is given once a year to the state’s citizenry as a public lecture to reflect on successes of the University. The citizens of Nebraska absolutely love this university, even when the football team isn’t doing so well, and they hold it in high esteem. Giving the Nebraska Lecture is therefore one of the highest honors you can have as a faculty member at this institution.
10) What would you tell a current student interested in your career? Any advice?
Train deep, but also learn to think broad. Ground yourself in the fundamentals of your discipline, but appreciate the applications. Learn how to think about problems from multiple angles, and always surround yourself with smart folks who have skill sets different than your own. When working with people from different disciplines, make every effort to understand their culture and their language, which are often quite different than your own discipline. Finally, the best collaborations arise when they are driven by scientific opportunity for BOTH parties—make sure there is a return on the investment for your collaborators!
11) What are some options that I can do to gain experience in this field now as a graduate student?
Learn a programming language, take an extra course or two in statistics, take a course in population genetics, evolutionary biology, or ecology. These will go a long ways toward teaching you to think about big problems in microbiological sciences.
12) What do you like to do outside of work?
I live on an acreage outside of town, so there is a wide range of work (landscaping and property upkeep) and play (ATV riding, target shooting, axe-throwing). There is nothing like putting in a hard day’s work on the property on a Saturday followed by an evening at the firepit with the kids, in-laws, grandkids or friends just hanging out watching the sunset.
13) Who has influenced you the most in life?
Without a doubt, my wife, who has been by my side since high school.
14) If you were stranded on a deserted island, what one band or musician would help keep your sanity?
It would absolutely have to be Shinedown for the band, but for a guitarist it would have to be Carlos Santana.
15) What do you consider your favorite hobby?
16) What is your favorite quote?
“If I claim to be a wise man, it surely means that I don’t know” Kerry Livgren, Kansas (band), from the song “Carry on my wayward son.”
17) If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
18) If you won the lottery, what would you do?
Buy more land and start a landscaping business
19) If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?
Continental Europe and Scandinavia
20) If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Steak, without a doubt
21) Which authors or books have influenced you the most?
Robert Fulghum, “Everything I needed to know I learned in Kindergarten”
Jared Diamond “Guns, germs, and steel”—I even titled my Nebraska Lecture “Guts, germs, and stainless steel” as a take-off from Diamond’s now classic work
22) Tell us something about yourself that otherwise we wouldn’t know or guess.
I like a wide range of musical genres, from metal to jazz…with the exception being pop!