New faculty profile: Joe Pierre studies diet, gut physiology, and the microbiome in health and disease

Joe Pierre joined the UW–Madison faculty in October 2021 as an assistant professor in the Department on Nutritional Sciences. Funding for this nutrition-focused position comes from the Dairy Innovation Hub, which has supported 11 faculty positions so far at UW–Madison, UW–Platteville and UW–River Falls.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Green Bay and Door County, Wisconsin, a little over 2 hours northeast of Madison.

What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I attended UW–Madison as an undergraduate (BS in natural science) where I was a student athlete in track and cross country from 2005-2008. I then completed a Ph.D. in nutritional sciences through the IGPNS program at UW. Following graduation, my postdoctoral fellowship training was in gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition at the University of Chicago. Prior to joining the UW faculty, I was most recently an assistant professor of pediatrics, microbiology, immunology, and biochemistry at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

How did you get into your field of research?
The gastrointestinal tract serves as the largest “external” surface of the body and is tasked with digesting and absorbing nutrients, mediating cohabitation with trillions of microorganisms, and acting at the largest endocrine and immune organ. As I learned more about the many important roles the gut plays in human health, I became more fascinated by how diet and resident microbial communities fundamentally shape metabolic and immune responses in the gut and throughout the body. My fellowship training was focused on the tools and concepts for studying the gut microbiome and host metabolites. Putting all these experiences together, it was a natural next step to bring these experiences and interests back to the field of nutritional sciences.

What are the main goals of your current research program?
My research program has been centered around understanding the roles of diet, gut physiology, and the microbiome in health and disease. We have existing NIH funding examining the role of diet and bariatric surgery on breast cancer outcomes, the role of the microbiome/mycobiome in inflammatory bowel disease, and how extraintestinal microbial communities (in circulation) shape cardiovascular events. At UW, my program will continue to utilize diverse experimental tools (bariatric surgery, parenteral nutrition, gnotobiotics, microbial sequencing, and enteroids) to gain deeper insights into nutritionally relevant areas — emphasizing dairy components — in the context of disease treatment, prevention and optimizing human health.

What attracted you to UW–Madison?
UW–Madison is a research powerhouse with thousands of talented faculty colleagues, laboratory resources, core facilities, along with thoughtful and hardworking students and trainees to interact with. If there is a scientific hypothesis worth testing, you can successfully pursue it at the UW.

What was your first visit to campus like?
I believe my first ‘visit’ to campus was as a child (my brother was an engineering student), but I remember touring campus as a high school track recruit with then head coach, Ed Nuttycombe. The impression and beauty of this campus never gets old.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
I hope my students are inspired by the materials and concepts and go on to pursue lifelong curiosity outside of the classroom that enriches their lives and professional careers.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
I am an infrequent user of social media but maintain a Twitter and LinkedIn account.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
Absolutely. The pursuit of basic and translational research knowledge — especially in metabolism, nutrition, and health — benefits the residents of Wisconsin and beyond. More specifically, a key emphasis of my program is gaining deeper insights into the use of dairy components and products in human health and nutrition. Milk is a fundamentally important source of nutrition in mammalian biology. Dairy products contain complete protein, hundreds of bioactive peptides and enzymes, and unique lipids that have been key assets to human agriculture and success for millennia. Beyond human health, dairy is economically important to Wisconsin and many populations around the globe.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
It may sound cliché, but we really are a product of what we eat. Beyond energy, our diets begin an enormously complex cascade of metabolites, microbial adaptation and selection, and host cell and organ system responses that are fascinating and interconnected in many ways that we’re still trying to understand. Appreciating the catalyzing role of diet synergizes with the biochemical, genetic, environmental, lifestyle and microbiological academic pursuits in understanding human biology.

What are your hobbies and other interests?
As a father of several young kids, I spend a lot of time at home, with the occasional camping trip or golf outing.