Stephen Hursting, PhD, can still remember visiting Carolina for the first time before beginning his graduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. “I came on a beautiful, sunny spring day. It was 1982 and UNC had just won the [NCAA] National Championship on Michael Jordan’s shot the week before, so everyone was so happy.” Already a Carolina fan, it was a no-brainer for Hursting to choose joining the Tar Heel community over other graduate nutrition programs. He might not have realized it then, but the same palpable energy of successful teamwork he felt that weekend would become a driving force behind his work as a researcher.

Hursting became interested in research as an undergraduate student. He believes this kind of early exposure to research is important. “Here in my lab at UNC, we typically have 10 to 12 undergraduate students and several MS students conducting mentored research with our postdocs and PhD sudents. It seems to help crystallize what they want to do in the future, as all of our undergrads have gone on to graduate or professional schools.” This was certainly true for Hursting, who came to UNC for his MPH and interested in the world hunger issue. He thought that he was heading towards a public health-oriented career with the World Health Organization. Then, nutritional biochemistry hooked him – and never stopped hooking him (he teaches the course today). That brought him back to a more basic science-focused research career.

It was in graduate school at Carolina that Hursting became interested in cancer research. He also fell in love with his now wife of 36 years, Marcie, who was finishing her PhD and looking for postdoctoral positions. Marcie Hursting chose the University of Washington in Seattle. The Hurstings graduated one weekend, got married the following, and drove to Seattle the next. Steve’s CV was distributed to a brand-new cancer prevention research group at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. This was an excellent opportunity for him to continue developing his work in nutrition and cancer. After Marcie completed her postdoc, the Hurstings returned to Carolina. Steve was back home for his PhD at UNC Nutrition, now focused on nutrition and cancer with an emphasis on preventing cancer with nutrition interventions.

Throughout his career, which includes 10 years at the National Cancer Institute, and 13 years in the University of Texas system, his interest in cancer prevention has continued. Since returning to UNC in 2014 as Professor in the Department of Nutrition, with a 20% appointment at the Nutrition Research Institute (NRI),  the Hursting Lab has focused on obesity as a risk factor for cancer and understanding what it is about obesity that drives at least 13 types of disparate cancers. In understanding the mechanisms underlying this connection, Hursting and his team hope to figure out how they can intervene and disconnect the obesity-cancer link. While much of this work can be done at the laboratory bench, Hursting values translational research approaches and trying to transfer what is learned in the lab to more immediate contributions in the clinic.

Traditionally, laboratory animal and mechanistic work is disconnected from human intervention trials. Hursting says he really likes transdisciplinary approaches involving animal-human co-trials, where “we are working side-by-side with clinical trial teams, medical oncologists, and epidemiologists to accelerate the pace of transaltional research while letting the parallel research paths inform one another”. Collaborations like this particularly excite Hursting as he prepares to step into his role as UNC Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) director.

Hursting, who has played team sports his entire life, considers himself a team player and bridge builder. As director, he’ll continue to build bridges between the NRI and main campus. Hursting is proud of the work the NRI has done to foster collaborations within our institution. “We have an outstanding faculty and staff, so I’m not worried about the team building there. It is just part of our DNA.” Much of this collaborative spirit, he acknowledges, comes from the leadership of outgoing director Steven Zeisel, MD, PhD. “Steve Zeisel has set us up so wonderfully. Those are big shoes to fill for sure.”

Filling those shoes will create a bit of a lifestyle change for Hursting, who previously spent most of his work week on main campus in Chapel Hill. Still, the days he spent at the NRI were special. “At the NRI, people really care about each other and there is a clear mission that we are really dedicated to.” On his days in Kannapolis, he often found himself getting back to Chapel Hill late because he didn’t want to leave. “I always  enjoyed my NRI days, and now every day is an NRI day.” And it will be a wonderful situation: “[the NRI] is on such a great trajectory already. It’s not like we’ve got to change a whole lot of direction of what we are doing. We are really on a roll. I hope to be able to add to it and accelerate it.”

Hursting believes that with a new emphasis on precision nutrition coming from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the NRI is poised to be a leader in the field. “So much of nutrition and cancer, and really, nutrition and all diseases, has been one-size-fits-all.” Patients are provided with general nutrition recommendations rather than specific recommendations tailored to their individual needs. “We have the opportunity to integrate what we have learned about precision nutrition into areas that our researchers are focused on: cancer, fetal alcohol and alcohol effects, brain health, and cardiometabolic health. These are areas in great need of a more precise, individualized approach to how to prevent and control disease.” The time is now for the NRI and Hursting, our new “head coach.”

“I am a big fan of team play. Science is so much more fun, I think, when it is approached as a team sport.” Hursting counts himself fortunate to have had some terrific mentors who he describes as great collaborators and team builders. Now, he is building a new team of his own. “We are so much better when we work together and bring our collective strengths and knowledge and enthusiasm.” He recognizes that being a good collaborator doesn’t always come naturally – it takes intentionality and making sure that everybody on the team is getting what they need. As the NRI team leader, he is committed to making sure that our researchers and staff are always prepared to make game-winning shots in the field of nutrition. When the final buzzer sounds, we’ll rush the court together – just like the 1982 Tar Heels.

Posted June 1, 2021