Below are research bios for current members of the Food and Health Lab at Montana State University. If you are interested in joining or collaborating with our team, please use the the lab's Contact page. You can also learn more about graduates from the Food and Health Lab.

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Principal Investigators

 

 

Selena Ahmed

Selena Ahmed

Assistant Professor of Sustainable Food Systems

My research, teaching, and outreach interests are at the intersection of the ecological, cultural, and health aspects of food systems with a focus on food security and food environments in health disparate communities. For the past 13 years, I have carried out transdisciplinary food systems research in a range of ecological and cultural contexts in China, India, Morocco, Venezuela, Belize, the Dominican Republic, and the United States. Since joining the faculty of Montana State University in Fall 2013, I jointly initiated The Food and Health Lab in collaboration with Dr. Carmen Byker Shanks with the objective to carry out and provide training on basic, behavioral, and applied research to explore agricultural-nutrition-health linkages. As the Principle Investigator of the Agroecology and Phytochemistry Group of the Food and Health Lab, I am particularly interested in identifying the socio-ecological determinants of environmental and human wellbeing in the food system. This work involves quantifying the influence of environmental factors and agricultural practices on ecosystem services, food quality, food access, and diets in the context of global change. The ultimate translational goal of this work is to develop evidence-based plans to promote biodiversity in agricultural systems and mitigate risk of food insecurity and diet-related chronic disease towards promoting sustainable food systems.

The theories and methods driving my transdisciplinary research draw from training in chemical ecology and clinical nutrition (NIH TEACRS postdoctoral research at Tufts University); biology, plant sciences, and phytochemistry (PhD at the City University of New York and the New York Botanical Garden); cultural anthropology and ethnobotany (MSc from the University of Kent at Canterbury); and economics (BA from Barnard College). The analytical methods that I utilize include: phytochemical profiling of bioactive food components (using High Performance Liquid Chromatography); bioactivity analysis (reagent, cell, and animal based assays); quantification of disease biomarkers in human serum (oxidative stress and inflammation); genetic analysis (molecular markers); biodiversity inventories; botanical identification; structured surveys, interviews and focus groups; observational food environment surveys; sensory analyses of foods and botanicals; and dietary diversity assessments.

Email: selena.ahmed@montana.edu

Carmen Byker Shanks

Carmen Byker Shanks

Associate Professor of Food and Nutrition and Sustainable Food Systems

My research investigates linkages between human health, dietary intake, food security, and food environments. I joined the faculty of Montana State University in Fall 2011. I jointly initiated The Food and Health Lab in Fall 2013 in collaboration with Dr. Selena Ahmed to carry out basic, behavioral, and applied research that explores agricultural-nutrition-health linkages. I lead the Human Nutrition and Behavior Research Group of the Food and Health Lab at Montana State University.

Food is an essential component of life and livelihoods everywhere. However, food patterns vary across the globe. Diets are shaped by a myriad of factors that influence the foods people can and do eat. Dietary practices present important implications for the health and development of individuals as well as groups. Therefore, I partner with researchers, students, stakeholders, and communities to measure and implement contextually specific strategies and tools that facilitate dietary change and positive health outcomes.

I address the nutritional needs of communities through direct collaboration and the use of nutrient analysis tools, surveying, sensory testing, food environment instruments, food weighing, plate waste, mapping, inventories, and qualitative data collection. My current research contributes to understanding the factors that influence dietary quality, nutrition behaviors, food security, and human health and development in three applied areas: (1) child nutrition in the school food environment, (2) family decisions in the consumer food environment, and (3) food assistance programs’ contributions to child and family nutrition.

Dr. Byker Shanks' research program aims to increase dietary quality of diverse populations while contributing to healthier food environments and systems, decreasing health disparities and nutrition-related diseases, and promoting positive human health and development throughout the course of life. Dr. Byker Shanks holds a BS in Dietetics and PhD in Behavioral and Community Science from Virginia Tech.

Email: cbykershanks@montana.edu

Communications and Outreach

Justin Shanks

Justin Shanks

Communications and Outreach

Justin manages a diverse multimedia portfolio to effectively and engagingly translate key messages to both academic and non-academic audiences to represent the mission, vision, and activities of the Food and Health Lab on a volunteer and project-specific basis. Currently a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies (STS) at Virginia Tech, Justin holds a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies (Loyola University Chicago, 2003), Master of Urban and Regional Planning, as well as a Master of Arts in English (both Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2009). Before beginning his dissertation project, Justin conducted research focused on childhood obesity, food security, and food access. In partnership with the American Planning Association Planning and Community Health Center, he conducted a nationwide review of planning documents, evaluation of practices, and survey of key stakeholders to understand the relationship between urban planning and food access. Throughout all stages of his interdisciplinary academic background, Justin investigated the importance of cultivating critical understandings of how technology shapes interpersonal interactions. 

Please contact Justin regarding press inquires, interviews, speaking engagements, or other activities featuring the Food and Health Lab or its affiliates.

Email: justin.shanks@montana.edu

Research Associates and Affiliated Scholars

Janet Gamble

Janet Gamble

Janet Gamble is a Registered Dietitian who also has her Masters in Teaching. She is an instructor within the Department of Health and Human Development (Food and Nutrition) where she teaches courses such as Basic Human Nutrition, Food Science, Nutrition and Society, Micronutrient Metabolism, and Culinary Marketing. Her backgrounds in both education and nutrition have helped shape her interests in research, pedagogy, food security, sustainable food systems, and cultural competency in foods and nutrition. Janet joins The Food and Health Lab as a Research Associate where she is assisting with various aspects of the Beef to School Project.

Email: janet.gamble@montana.edu

Bailey Houghtaling

Bailey Houghtaling

Bailey is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Behavioral and Community Science through Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Her research interests specific to public health nutrition focus on the relationship of the consumer food environment to diet-related non-communicable diseases in rural populations. Her current studies and research pursuits incorporate behavioral economic principles to inform the suitability and feasibility of sustainable nutrition interventions aiming to reduce and prevent obesity in the food-retail environment.

Bailey completed a dietetic internship through Iowa State University’s Nationwide program and is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. In 2010 Bailey received her BS degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, where from she traveled to rural Alaska, Wyoming, and Montana to work in the food service industry. She graduated with her MS degree in 2015 from MSU’s Sustainable Food Systems degree program, where she was affiliated with FAHL as a Research Project Coordinator in addition to instructing a Food Fundamentals Laboratory.

Blog: blogs.lt.vt.edu/futurefoodprof

Email: baileyh@vt.edu

Deborah Kraner

Debra Kraner

Debra Kraner is the Lab Manager and a Research Associate of the Food and Health Lab. Her primary research question is exploring how producers can grow medicinal herbs in a commercial and economically viable setting that also have a functional quality which is comparable to plants that grow in a wild-setting. Further investigation of this topic will help to solve the problem of many plants used in Traditional Chinese Medicine being over-harvested in the wild. Her research has currently been funded through the Undergraduate Scholar’s Program (USP) and the McNair Scholar’s Program at MSU, and also the IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE).

Within the Food and Health Lab, Debra focuses primarily on phytochemical analysis of tea, maple sap, fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes, and other botanical materials. She also works in collaboration with fellow associates of the FAHL in helping to promote healthy lifestyle choices and evaluating current food sources in reservation communities in Montana. This past summer she worked with Minzu University in Beijing, China. This time was spent evaluating medicinal herb use changes in indigenous and rural villages in Guizhou Province and a comparison of food diversity in Beijing markets and supermarkets.

Debra is currently a senior in the Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems program at Montana State University and has completed her minor in China Studies. She previously holds an Associate’s Degree of Applied Science (Biology Concentration) from Lewis and Clark Community College (Godfrey, Illinois). She plans on attending graduate school to study Traditional Chinese Medicine. Her future plans include practicing Chinese Medicine and growing/self-processing the medicinal herbs used in her practice.

Email: debra.kraner@montana.edu

Teresa Smith

Teresa Smith

Dr. Teresa Smith is a Research Scientist at the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition, a non-profit nutrition research organization in Omaha, NE. Prior to her role at the Center, she earned her Doctor of Philosophy in Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Research from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Dr. Smith’s research expertise lies in the environmental, social, and individual determinants of dietary behaviors as they relate to obesity prevention and cancer risk. This includes, but is not limited to cultural and familial influences on individual dietary behaviors, healthy foods access and availability, issues of food insecurity, and dietary measurement and analysis. Prior to joining the Center, Dr. Smith earned a BS in Education and Human Sciences and MS in Nutrition and Health Sciences from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Dr. Smith is also an active member of the Society of Behavioral Medicine.

E-mail: tsmith@centerfornutrition.org

Current Graduate Students

Meredith Howard

Meredith Howard

Meredith Howard is a graduate student working toward a Master’s of Science in Community Health. She received her B.A. in Psychology (2015) from Truman State University. Meredith’s interest in mental health research and love for the natural environment led her interest in examining human-environmental interactions for community wellbeing.

Meredith is working with Dr. Selena Ahmed and Dr. Mark Schure in the Department of Health and Human Development for her graduate project. Her graduate research is centered on identifying the effects of climate change and variability as well as the overall environment on the mental wellbeing of farmers in rural Montana. Meredith recently received funding from the Montana State Campus Advisory Council for her graduate study. This research is contributing to the NSF Epscor Track 2 project at MSU by informing the understanding of social systems within the food-water-energy-biodiversity-social systems (FWEBS) research framework in the context of global environmental change.

Email: meredith.howard027@gmail.com

Xiangmei Li

Xiangmei Li

Dr. Xiangmei Li is a professor at Nanjing Agricultural University who is pursuing a second PhD in the Department of Earth Sciences at Montana State University. She received her BS and MS from Central China Normal University with a focus in sustainable land and water management and regional development. Dr. Li’s first PhD was from the Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment of the Chinese Academy of Sciences with a focus on rural development in the Tibetan Plateau. Currently, Dr. Li is a Teaching Assistant for Earth System Science at Montana State University.

Dr. Li uses interdisciplinary tools drawing from the fields of psychology, economics, and food environments to examine ways in which perceptions and emotions drive economic decisions as they relate to socioeconomic and cultural changes. Specifically, Dr. Li is applying these methods among minority population in Tibetan Plateau in the context of planned development and environmental change. Dr. Li is ultimately interested in examining how these perceptions and decisions influence adaptation strategies and adaptation ability of Tibetan populations towards elucidating the socioecological determinants of environmental and human wellbeing. Her dissertation research explores minority ethnic segregation, integration, and citizenship in Tibetan Plateau, characterizes food environments and dietary quality, re-examines the way in which minority ethnic housing segregation and integration are currently represented in political discourse across the Tibetan Plateau, and reviews their implications for housing policy, inclusion, dietary quality, and the social rights of citizenship. 

Email: xiangmeili@montana.edu

Durc Setzer

Durc Setzer

Durc Setzer is a current M.S. Candidate in the department of plant science. He received a B.S. in Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems Plant Production from MSU Bozeman in 2015. His master’s research involves a small fruit variety trial occurring at different sites in Montana. This trial consists of 6 relatively novel species with potential to invigorate Montana’s crop production, economy, health and food systems. Durc’s collaborative involvement with the Food and Health Lab will serve to identify quality characteristics of the fruit by species, cultivar and other relevant factors; with the end goal of improving producer and consumer knowledge, as well as guiding future research and breeding efforts.

Email: durc.setzer@ecat.montana.edu

Erin Smith

Erin Smith

Erin Smith is a second year graduate student in the Sustainable Food Systems program at Montana State University. As a research assistant for the Food and Health Lab, Erin contributes in various capacities to the Water, Agriculture, Food, Energy, Research Nexus (WAFERx) project, an interdisciplinary investigation which seeks to assess the sustainability and feasibility of implementing biofuel and carbon capture technologies while maintaining food security in the upper Missouri River Basin. Erin also works closely on the Food Distributions Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) fruit and vegetable nutrition intervention, which provides local produce and nutrition education at the commodities center on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Erin’s research interests include native food systems, traditional ecological knowledge, natural food environments, and food insecurity in rural and tribal communities. Her thesis work characterizes the use and valuation of first foods by tribal members on the Flathead Reservation, and explores perceptions of climate change impacts to first foods by utilizing traditional ecological knowledge and qualitative methodologies.

Email: smitherinmae@gmail.com

Leah Smutko

Leah Smutko

Leah Smutko is in her third and final year of the Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems Graduate Program. Originally from Colorado, Leah has taken her previous degrees in Anatomy and Culinary Arts and applied them toward her research. Her primary work integrates sustainable cooking skills into the dietetic and culinary programs. She hopes to not only give dietetic students the confidence to cook for themselves and their future clients, but to also bring local and seasonal items into college kitchens. Providing students self-efficacy in the kitchen will help to promote the Bozeman food system and healthy dietary standards. For students living in  dormitories, Leah is working in conjunction with MSU to create an interactive website to locate foods for restrictive diets in the dining halls. Her end goals are to publish a cookbook that emphasizes basic cooking principles within a sustainable food system. Leah will also be working toward finishing her registered dietitian license following graduation from MSU.

Email: leah.smutko@ecat.montana.edu

Elizabeth Svisco

Elizabeth Svisco

Elizabeth is a second year graduate student in the Sustainable Food Systems program. She grew up in Castle Rock, Colorado and then moved to Bozeman, Montana to get her Bachelors Degree. She graduated with a degree in Agroecology in the Spring of 2016. Her research interests include behavioral economics and how they apply to human nutrition choices, biofortification of crops, and local food systems.

Email: sviscoe@gmail.com

Ali Thornton

Ali Thornton

Ali is a first year graduate student in the Sustainable Food Systems program. She received her B.S. from Montana State University from the Sustainable Foods and Bioenergy Systems program, concentrating in agro-ecology. Ali spent three years working in the Cropland Weed Ecology and Management Lab as a research assistant, helping MSU professors and graduate students on developing sustainable weed control tactics for Montana producers. During this time, she conducted multiple research studies of her own on how different environmental stressors impact a biocontrol agent and its relationship with Bromus tectorum. Since graduating, Ali has worked with Gallatin Valley Farm to School on educating Bozeman’s youth on the importance of local foods and sustainability. She currently manages their Bozone Ozone Bus education program, a mobile greenhouse bus that travels to different schools in the community. Ali is interested in studying how outdoor experiential learning can have positive impacts on knowledge retention and academic outcomes in elementary children

Email: alithrntn@gmail.com

Teresa Warne

Teresa Warne 

Teresa Warne is a first year graduate student working toward a Master of Science in Sustainable Food Systems through the Department of Health and Human Development. She Received her BS in Environmental Science at Montana State University in 2005. Teresa’s research will include the characterization of current community and household food security, quantification of effects of climate change scenarios on food security, and development of adaption strategies and management plans to mitigate climate risk and health disparities in food systems among rural and Native American communities in the Upper Missouri River Basin.

Email: terwarne@msn.com

Current Undergraduate Students

Emilia Hitchcock

Emilia Hitchcock

Deb Kraner

Debra Kraner

Natalie Sturm

Natalie Sturm