Studying pregnancy and its long-term impact on women and their children

Rita Strakovsky, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, is studying the relationship between the mother and the developing fetus.

Rita Strakovsky

With advice from healthcare professionals, the internet, family and friends, expectant mothers strive for healthy pregnancies — for the sake of their babies and themselves. Eating sensibly, exercising when possible and taking prenatal vitamins are all popular choices. The beneficial effects of these healthy practices during pregnancy, however, may be even more significant than previously thought.

Rita Strakovsky, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, is studying the relationship between the mother and the developing fetus. She is primarily concerned with how nutrition and environmental exposures influence maternal health and fetal development at the molecular level.

“The first nine months of development are crucial to how we experience the world and how the world interacts with us in adulthood,” Strakovsky said. “Pregnancy is a really important and sensitive window for lifelong health, both for the mother and the child. I’ve always wanted to take care of sensitive populations, so studying pregnancy has felt like the perfect fit for me.”

Working in the lab with animal models, Strakovsky has delved into research on the molecular effects of diet and environmental exposures in pregnancy. She also works with a cohort of pregnant women to understand whether some of these mechanisms can also be better understood in humans.

Strakovsky’s interest in health and nutrition stems from her family life. Growing up in Russia, she was taught by her family that food is an integral part of health and nutrition.

“We had a very traditional view of food,” Strakovsky said. “My parents had the food-as-medicine way of thinking. I always knew that when you’re sick, this is how you should eat, and my parents reinforced that food is an important component of overall health.”

When Strakovsky was 10, her family left Russia and immigrated to the U.S., ultimately settling in Illinois. She earned three degrees from the University of Illinois before coming to work for MSU.

“I think teaching, research and outreach are really important,” Strakovsky said. “I received a great education at a land-grant university, and I knew that I wanted to continue my career at one.”

Q&A: Rita Strakovsky

Title: Assistant professor, MSU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition

Joined MSU: 2017

Education: Ph.D., R.D., B.S., University of Illinois

Hometown: St. Petersburg, Russia, and Bloomington-Normal, Illinois

Influential or inspiring person: My parents and what they went through moving from Russia are a great inspiration to me. Within academia, several of my academic mentors have been wonderful support systems and inspirations, both personally and professionally. As a teacher, I hope to be as beneficial of a mentor to my students as mine were to me.

Book I’d recommend: The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. It has some loose biblical ties, but what I took away from the story is the fact that we used to rely on our families and communities – particularly women – to support us through pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing. Nowadays, I think a little bit of that has been lost. We rely on social media and the internet for information, which is often an important source of support, but perhaps not as fulfilling as personal interactions.

Favorite song or group: I grew up with classical music, particularly in Russia and with my dad being a musician. I also remember being young and listening to the Beatles. I didn’t speak English, but I knew all the words to the songs and finally learned their meaning when I moved to the U.S. I like a lot of contemporary music as well, especially Adele and Sia.

Why I chose to work in this field: I thought I was going to be a doctor. My mother was a nurse, my grandmother was a doctor, and I really liked taking care of people. I thought that studying biology would help me move toward medical school, but I actually found that I enjoyed my lab courses and research the most. I have always been interested in pregnancy and fetal development, and graduate school helped me to discover that I could still have a profound impact on human health but take a research approach rather than a clinical one.

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit www.futuresmagazine.msu.edu. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.

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