Tepper, Beverly J.
Phone: 732-932-9611, ext. 221
Ph.D., Tufts University, 1986
Department of Food Science, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, New Brunswick; Rutgers
Areas of Interest: Biology (Sensory Evaluation; Taste Genetics; Taste in Disease; Food Intake; Obesity.
In life, I never really had a fixed plan to be a scientist, but it just turned out that way. When I was sixteen and in high school, I was groping for a direction to go in. I did not know what my passion was yet, but I knew what I was good at: biology. So I went to college at Northeastern University in Boston and majored in biology as an undergraduate.
One project that got me interested in science was a class project on object manipulation in orangutans, about describing the importance of the thumb in primates. My friend and I designed an experiment and went to the local zoo, where we made a video of the animals. I noticed that it was a tremendous amount of fun to interpret the data and present the result in class. And we felt that we were doing something important.
My interested in science deepened when I worked in several different clinical laboratories during the five-year co-op program I took, from bacteria to assisting a hospital pathologist with autopsies. These experiences made me become a research assistant at Harvard Medical School, where I investigated the circadian rhythm of monkeys. It was very interesting work, but I knew I did not want to do this for the rest of my career.
It was during a seminar on the effect of nutrition in the brain that my light bulb went on. I knew immediately that this was the field for me. I wound up in graduate school at Tufts, where I studied changes in food intake in diabetic rats. I had to measure the content of each food cup (carbohydrates, fat, proteins) and their water bottle every day. My time was also spent cleaning their cages, as diabetic rats pee a lot. Apparently, I really was dedicated.
I also got a chance to work with Dr. Robin Kanarek from physiological psychology. Professor Kanarek showed me a love for science. She always challenged me and gave me the freedom to pursue what I found interesting. Subconsciously, I always tried to emulate her. She taught me how to write scientific articles, and my style of writing articles is similar to hers.
Now I advise my own students, and I notice that they take on sayings from me, like saying "let's take a step back back" when a conversation gets off track. I noticed one of my graduate student's tendency to summarize the conversation, just as I would do.
Another junction in my career path was my time at Monell Institute in Philadelphia, where I was exposed to research in humans. This pushed me into the social science and psychology of eating. I did not plan on getting into multidisciplinary research, but, again, it just turned out that way.
When I saw the position in Sensory Science at Rutgers, I almost forgot about applying for the job. But my interview went very well, and within a week I received a job offer. I never really planned to be an academic, and might as well have easily begun a career in the food industry. Because I had no teaching experience, I developed a teaching program from ground zero.
My research is now oriented on gestational diabetes, among others. Pregnant women with diabetes have a higher desire for sweet taste late in pregnancy. These cravings might make it difficult to stay on their diet. With our findings, we hope to give these women better diet advice in the future.
My other, more fundamental, research line is on PROP, 6-n-propylthiouracil. This is a compound that is extremely bitter to some people, while others can't even taste it. We found that female PROP-tasters are generally heavier than female non-tasters, but for men it does not make a difference. We are trying to figure out why, because the PROP-tasting phenotype affects the eating pattern in both men and women. We are also investigating whether we need to give non tasters different diet recommendations than supertasters. Maybe nontasters do better on a diet with some fat in it than a low-fat diet?
Another aspect we are working on is food-adventurousness. Even though supertasters naturally dislike bitter things, they might learn to like bitter food over time. For example, I am a supertaster and I have developed a liking of horseradish, olives, beer and other bitter foods.
In my family, being serious in school was very important. But as for scientific work, I was going blind, because no one in my family had a PhD. My parents never understood why I was in a rat room all the time during my PhD work, hardly getting by financially. Maybe if I had studied something more defined, clinically motivated, they would have understood better. But they were very proud of my degree and when I came to Rutgers, my mother was just ecstatic about "her daughter the professor."
As a professor, I try to inspire my students by example. I love science and working with new data makes me happy. I hope I'm able to communicate how important and fulfilling this is as your life's work. I also encourage my students to ask questions. I find that some female students sometimes have to get over the idea that they're not as good as men. During one class, one very bright student started her question with the words "This may be a stupid question, but..." And I immediately told her: "Don't let me ever hear you say that again, your question is just as relevant, important as intelligent as anybody else's"
I meet so many students that have to a have a fixed career plan. I always tell them not to worry, because I myself came across a several junctions that led the way to another direction and I found my passion as I went along. Career opportunities often happen to you rather than your being in control.
Transcribed from an interview with Mariette Bliekendaal