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Gower embodies UAB’s collaborative spirit through cross-campus partnerships

September 09, 2019
UAB Reporter, by Haley Herfurth

Barbara Gower, Ph.D.
Barbara Gower, Ph.D., professor and vice chair for Research in the School of Health Professions Department of Nutrition Sciences

UAB is a unique place, says Barbara Gower, Ph.D., professor and vice chair for Research in the School of Health Professions Department of Nutrition Sciences. But not just because the university brought in nearly $300 million in NIH funding this past year, or because our orthopaedic surgeons offer total knee replacements without an overnight hospital stay for some patients.

For Gower, it’s the university’s collaborative spirit that makes it singular in nature.

“There’s no other institution like it,” she said.

Gower joined UAB’s faculty in 1997 and studies obesity and energy metabolism, with an emphasis on insulin secretion and action and the role of the endocrine system. As clinicians continue to explore how obesity affects other health outcomes, Gower’s expertise has come into high demand. This mean’s she wears many hats: In addition to her departmental work, Gower also is the director of the Metabolism Core for the Nutrition Obesity Research Center (NORC), the Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS) and the Human Physiology Core for the Diabetes Research Center. In each role, she partners with faculty and clinicians in other fields to study topics such as the role of race and obesity in maltreated children or the correlation between obesity and recurring kidney stones, which she is exploring with colleagues from the Department of Urology.

“A wonderful thing about UAB is that it nurtures young investigators. It gets them hooked up with collaborators and gets their careers going.”

“Dr. Gower certainly embodies the spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration through her unselfish commitment of time, enthusiasm and energy,” said Dean G. Assimos, M.D., professor and chair in urology. “Our department as well as many others have benefited from her contributions to education, mentoring and scientific investigations.”

Gower also has scientist appointments in the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, Comprehensive Center for Health Aging, School of Medicine Division of Cardiovascular Disease, Comprehensive Diabetes Center, Center for Exercise Medicine, Center for AIDS Research and the Center for Women’s Reproductive Health. Her peer-reviewed publications also are a demonstration of her effective efforts of collaboration: a 2018 paper on the effects of a ketogenic diet on women with gynecologic cancers was written in collaboration with the departments of Health Behavior and Obstetrics and Gynecology. Another exploring how diets low in carbs and fats affect people with knee osteoarthritis was written with colleagues from her own department and also with researchers from the department of psychology, the School of Nursing and the Division of Gerontology, Geriatrics and Palliative Care.

“Nutrition science is critical to the understanding and management of many chronic diseases, and Barbara has helped researchers across UAB understand this,” said Nutrition Science Chair James Hill, Ph.D.

In recognition of her collaborative work across campus, Gower has earned the 2019 Sam Brown Bridge Builder Award, which recognizes a faculty member who engages in interdisciplinary, collaborative efforts across campus in ways that embody the vision, character and bridge-building talents vital to the future of UAB. Gower will be recognized during the annual Faculty Convocation 4 p.m. Sept. 10 at the Hilton Birmingham at UAB.
 

Creating solutions

When Gower first came to UAB, her research space was one bench in someone else’s lab. Now, she runs the largest core laboratory in the Susan Mott Webb Nutrition Sciences Building.

“Dr. Gower certainly embodies the spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration through her unselfish commitment of time, enthusiasm and energy.”

Her Metabolism Core laboratory was borne of a need she recognized after coming to campus. Twenty years ago, she says, researchers had to send samples off-campus to a private lab for hormone testing. Putting her endocrinology skills to good use, Gower started doing that testing herself on campus, and it became hugely popular.

“If you send samples to a commercial lab, you just get the data back. There’s no person to talk to,” Gower said. “We’re customer-oriented. We’re not just providing the service.” 

There are seemingly endless opportunities on campus for collaboration, Gower says. The idea is even emphasized as an integral shared value in UAB’s strategic plan, Forging the Future. Many centers host seminars and lecture series designed to promote interaction, and attending those functions can help researchers find opportunities for teamwork.

Additionally, centers such as the Nathan Shock Center, the CCTS and the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, among others, offer pilot grants to young researchers — another good way to meet people and get engaged, Gower says. That’s how she became involved with studying the link between obesity and kidney stones with the Department of Urology. Assistant Professor Kyle Wood, M.D., received a NORC pilot grant to study the connection and met Gower in the process.

“A wonderful thing about UAB is that it nurtures young investigators,” Gower said. “It gets them hooked up with collaborators and gets their careers going.”