Dr. Heather Blewett:
Connecting Food to Well-Being
Research science was the only option
“Muffin” was a childhood nickname that turned out to be surprisingly appropriate for Dr. Heather Blewett.
Today, Dr. Blewett is a world-class researcher at the St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre, seeking to understand the role food can play in human health. Some of her work – first with soy flour and now with ground flax – has her serving tasty muffins to volunteers and studying their impact during rigorous, well planned trials. Her research “…helps consumers make better choices and educates them while helping the canadian food industry.”
Her current work shines a light on cholesterol and blood sugar issues, relevant to Blewett personally because of the prevalence of type II diabetes in her family. Her work focuses on meeting Health Canada standards for making health claims about specific foods. If the results pan out as planned, we might, for example, be able to say definitively that soy flour and ground flax lower LDL cholesterol (also known as ‘bad’ cholesterol); that beta-glucan from barley helps keep blood sugar in check; and that a new snack food helps people feel fuller, for longer.
“I don’t ever think I ever thought of doing anything else.”
Dr. Blewett’s family trade and her path to success
Blewett always wanted to be a research scientist. When she was younger, she spent many weekends in the anatomy lab where her mother worked as a technician. “I don’t think I ever thought of doing anything else,” she says. “I guess you could say research science is the family trade.”
A graduate of Oak Park High School, Blewett has a Bachelor of Human Ecology degree from the University of Manitoba with a major in food and nutrition and a minor in business. She went straight into graduate studies at the U of M and then completed two post-doctoral programs, first at the University of Alberta and then back at the U of M.
The opportunity to work at St. Boniface’s Canadian Centre for Agri-food Research in Health and Medicine (CCARM) came along after her studies and she hasn’t looked back since. Blewett and her colleagues are learning much about the positive impacts of Canadian-grown crops on human health. CCARM is a partnership among St. Boniface Hospital, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and the U of M.
The St-Boniface advantage
Despite the challenges and occasional frustrations, she is passionate about her work. She’s especially grateful for the opportunity to work at a high-end facility. “We have excellent space and equipment,” she says. “Research-wise, we’re top notch.” She notes that Winnipeg is an especially wonderful place to recruit volunteers, who turn up in higher numbers here than other major cities.
Processes, patience, and ‘eureka moments’
Getting results takes patience, study, analysis, painstaking attention to detail, and more than a little bit of paper work. After the research is complete, the data is analyzed externally to see if the health claim can be supported. Then, a paper is submitted to a journal to help build the case. At the same time, an application must also be submitted to Health Canada. It takes about a year to prepare the application and a year to review it.
“I think ‘eureka moments’ are fairly rare, unfortunately,” says Blewett of the research process. “There are frustrating days in the lab where you’re so convinced you’re going to see this huge difference, but then nothing. That’s why research takes a long time, but it’s worth it.”
To learn more about Dr.Heather Blewett, click here: http://www.sbrc.ca/blewett
Dr. Heather Blewett
Principal Investigator, Human Nutrition and Immunology
Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research in Health and Medicine, St. Boniface Hospital Research
Adjunct Professor of Human Nutrition and Immunology, University of Manitoba