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Sight and Life is delighted that Dr Noel W Solomons, Co-Founder and Scientific Director of the Center for Studies of Sensory Impairment, Aging and Metabolism (CeSSIAM) and longstanding friend of Sight and Life, is the recipient of the 2019 J. David Naparstek Community Mentor Award alongside Ms Maria del Rosario Garcia-Meza. We warmly congratulate both of them on this well-deserved achievement!

The presence of exchange-students, as well as local students, has been a constant feature of CeSSIAM during the 34 years of its existence. Noel Solomons expresses his gratitude in receiving this prestigious award:

At least for me, this recognition is exceptionally sweet insofar as the mentoring of students and young scientists over the years in Guatemala has been more rewarding than the findings and publications. I had the good fortune to have mentoring from the likes of Nevin Scrimshaw, Irv Rosenberg and Fernando Viteri, and I have been passed the torch for a new generation of local exchange students through CeSSIAM’s 34 years of foundation.

Klaus Kraemer, Managing Director of Sight and Life, reflects on his relationship with Noel Solomons:

Those who have met Noel Solomons quickly understand he knows everything about nutrition. He is proactive about sharing his knowledge and experiences from the past forty plus years. Each conversation with Noel is an education that challenges your mind and his insights have changed my perspective on the most important underlying factors of malnutrition. Noel truly cares about the next generation of scientists and guides them as they take their first steps in the field and sets them up for a promising career path.

Dive into a day in the life of Dr Noel W. Solomons below:

Sight and Life (SAL): Dr Solomons, you are Director of the Center for Studies of Sensory Impairment, Aging and Metabolism (CeSSIAM). How long have you been in this role, and what does it entail?

Noel Solomons (NS): I have been in this position since July 1, 1985 – the day the new center was founded. I am also its Senior Scientist. The Center is the operative arm of a non-profit association, the ASOCIACION CeSSIAM. I’ve been the Vice President of the Board of Directors of ASOCIACION CeSSIAM since 1987. The role involves projecting the vision and the mission of the institution, both internally and externally. Above all, the Center is about discovery and the creation of new knowledge. It is also about training young scientists and building capacity for knowledge creation. It is not about participating in public health programs per se. External projection involves contacting potential donors of research financing in foundation, government and industry sources and communicating with potential collaborators and researchers. Reviewing research manuscripts and free-paper abstracts for scientific meetings occupies much of my time. The role also involves financial administration.

SAL: Is there such a thing as a normal working day for you? If so, could you describe it?

NS: When I’m not travelling, there is a usual work week. On Tuesdays, we hold an Academic Seminar, in which one of our staff or students will make a presentation on research. On Fridays, we convene a coordination meeting of our Guatemala City staff, followed by another Academic Seminar. Occasionally, we invite a guest professional to give a presentation. I try to leave Wednesdays free so that I can work from home, do errands and visit other professionals or entities. On Saturdays, I have one-on-one meetings with the post-doctoral staff members and graduate students to mentor their projects.

SAL: Can you tell us something about the team that supports you at CESSIAM?

NS: There is an external (international) team and an internal (local) team. The external team consists of the Nevin Scrimshaw International Nutrition Foundation in Boston and the Hildegard Grunow Foundation in Munich, Germany. We also have productive ongoing academic collaborations with several other international universities. The internal support team consists of two loyal staff members in clerical and custodial positions. We have five full-time professionals based in the Headquarters – two with international doctoral degrees in nutritional sciences – and one coordinating our outpost in Quetzaltenango in the Western Highlands.

SAL: Can you tell us something about the history, values and objectives of CeSSIAM itself?

NS: CeSSIAM was born out of values: our guiding principle is to encourage creative and unfettered lines of research outside of the constraints and orthodoxies of any institutional oversight. From 1977 to 1984, I perceived a weakening of the investigative mission of INCAP due to the politicization of research. As a conscious counter-reaction, CeSSIAM’s most important value was to provide a refuge for the expression of scientific curiosity originating from the inspiration of the investigator, with strict adherence to the objectivity of the scientific method. We also wanted to develop young scientists as ‘human capital’ for innovative biomedical investigation. We originally had four divisions for the center, but this has evolved to two: Diet and Health; and Safety and Efficacy of Iron.

SAL: Your website states that “CeSSIAM is located in Guatemala City, Guatemala. The small, modest building belies the copious amounts of cutting-edge nutrition research going on within!” Could you tell us more?

NS: The small building on the website photo is but one of a number of small buildings that make up the Center. In our white office headquarters, we have the offices; in a twin building attached, there is a space used for a clinic or simple laboratory, as well as a meeting room for seminars and some offices for our students. In the city of Quetzaltenango, in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, we have two locales in a commercial center. I have never subscribed to the “edifice complex” of some institutions, where the grandeur of the physical facilities becomes a status symbol. Our current facilities are ample compared to the space in the eye and ear hospital in our early years.

SAL: You are an officer of the Nevin Scrimshaw International Nutrition Foundation (INF). What is the relationship between INF and CeSSIAM?

NS: Around the time of the founding of CeSSIAM it was “awkward” to have large amounts of funds in local banks. We worked out a means to have hard currency deposits held in Boston and released as needed on a monthly basis. This arrangement persists through today, helping us to obtain equipment and reagents that are difficult to purchase directly in Central America.

SAL: You are a Doctor of Medicine by training. In what ways has this identity influenced your work?

NS: Being a physician in first instance has enabled my work, permitting me to take a leadership role in research with human subjects and populations. Moreover, a physician is less likely to become too narrowly focused on one problem or experimental technique. Medical doctors are also committed to the Hippocratic tradition, which is based on the dictum of “first do no harm.” This is relevant to areas such as iron administration in malarial regions.

SAL: Do you have a hero who has inspired you in your career?

NS: There are three heroes who have acted as inspirational mentors. In 1965, my political leanings were considered too radical for Top Secret clearance in the Office of Scientific Affairs, so I was relegated to USAID and war-vintage out-buildings in the flats of Foggy Bottom in Washington DC. Again, a modest setting! There I was to meet Dr Harald Frederiksen, a tropical disease physician (and also somewhat of a political renegade), with whom I did a summer internship after my junior year at Harvard College. The topic he proposed would introduce me to the world of international nutrition, and turn my career aspirations from biochemistry to medicine. Returning to campus, I headed over to cross-register at MIT for an honors thesis on nutrition and infection with Prof. Nevin Scrimshaw, Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science. Nevin, at age 31, had been the founding director of INCAP in Guatemala. Over the years, working with him later on the faculty of his Department and subsequently with his International Nutrition Foundation, I would learn the art of science in broad and relevant topics, as opposed to narrow specialization. Prof. Irwin Rosenberg, Dean Emeritus of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition: Science and Policy is another major influence. Closely allied in the 1970s with Dr. Scrimshaw, he was a gastroenterologist with an interest in folic acid and vitamin B12. We first linked up at the Harvard Medical School as part of the civil rights movement. After finishing my medical training, I became a trainee in the Division of Gastroenterology at the University of Chicago, which Irv was by then running. There I became involved in intestinal handling of lactose, zinc and bile acids in Chicago, and I carried those three interests to Guatemala, when he pointed me to a final, fellowship year abroad at the INCAP.

SAL: If you could change one thing about your working life, what would it be?

NS: I wish that I could spend more time with the staff and students at CeSSIAM’s outpost in the Western Highlands. It’s a remote – but vibrant – location.

SAL:How do you switch off from work? Do you have interests outside your professional existence?

NS: “So much to do … so little time” is my usual perspective. I enjoy photography, dancing and socializing, but usually in the context of a professional activity.

See the links below for more information on the remarkable work of CeSSiAM and Noel W Solomons:

Guatemala recognizes Noel Solomon’s research efforts
CeSSiAM celebrates 25 years of nutrition research
Read Noel Solomon’s latest insightful article on Nutrient Density as a Dimension of Dietary Quality in the latest Sight and Life magazine.