CAHNR Alum Nancy Kirkiles-Smith Rediscovers Passion for Nutrition with Weekend Kitchen

CAHNR alum Nancy Kirkiles-Smith ’85 (CLAS) ’96 (CAHNR), is not one for idleness. In addition to working as a full-time research scientist at a cancer startup company, she runs a retail kitchen store, hosts and teaches cooking classes, and is a Duke Certified Integrative Health and Wellness coach. “I can’t imagine not having everything that I do,” Kirkiles-Smith says.

CAHNR 10th Anniversary of Health badgeCAHNR 10th Anniversary of Health badgeKirkiles-Smith’s interest in health and nutrition began in childhood. Her father, a Greek immigrant, owned a restaurant in New Haven. When Kirkiles-Smith was in third grade her father had a heart attack. This made the whole family more aware of their diet. “We were always very conscious of what we ate and how that could relate to health,” Kirkiles-Smith says.

As an undergraduate at UConn, Kirkiles-Smith studied cell biology, intending to go to medical school. But when she decided to pursue a master’s degree before applying for medical school, her path changed. Kirkiles-Smith studied Animal and Nutritional Science at the University of New Hampshire, where she worked on studies of beta carotene metabolism. Carotenoids, including beta carotene, are colorful plant pigments found in foods like carrots and green leafy vegetables, that have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Kirkiles-Smith decided to pursue a career in research and earned her PhD in nutritional sciences at UConn, working under Professor Harold Furr.

After graduating, Kirkiles-Smith did a postdoctoral fellowship in immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine.

“I thought that someday I would link nutritional science and immunology together but that was before the microbiome became huge.”

At Yale, after her postdoctoral work, Kirkiles-Smith stayed on as a staff scientist and laboratory manager in Dr. Jordan Pober’s laboratory. There, she developed  humanized mouse models, a novelty at the start of her career, to study the allogeneic immune response to organ transplants. Now, humanized mice are common models in many fields of research.

“I’ve always been sort of ahead of the curve on things,” Kirkiles-Smith says.

Smith is now working for a biotech startup, called Normunity, developing novel cancer treatments. There are two types of tumors: “hot” and “cold.” The body’s immune system can infiltrate and fight “hot” tumors but not “cold” tumors, which constitute most solid tumors. As a senior scientist at Normunity, Kirkiles-Smith is working to turn “cold” tumors “hot.” Using the humanized mouse models with which Kirkiles-Smith has worked for most of her career, she investigates what happens when she introduces Normunity’s compounds to various cancer models.

“It’s exciting to be in that kind of discovery that’s groundbreaking and against the current dogma,” Kirkiles-Smith says. Normunity is closely allied with the Yale labortatory led by Dr. Lieping Chen, a pioneer in the field of immuno-oncology.

In another chapter of her life, Kirkiles-Smith has returned to her roots in nutritional science. One day, Kirkiles-Smith’s brother, a sculptor and metalsmith, asked her to help fill his kitchen design showroom with small retail items people could purchase as they visited. She enjoyed setting up a retail space and bringing in products that had design and quality.

“Finally, after about six months he said: ‘You’re covering up my stuff, you need to get your own place’,” Kirkiles-Smith says. She realized how much she enjoyed the retail space, so she and her husband opened a kitchen shop in Essex.

As the business grew, people would continually ask her if she hosted cooking classes. This inspired Kirkiles-Smith to put an addition on her house allowing classes with up to 12 students.

People in a cooking classPeople in a cooking class
Kirkiles-Smith says she teaches her cooking classes “like a lab class” with procedural efficiency and detailed explanations to highlight the history and nutrition of the dishes. (Jason Sheldon/UConn Photo)

She brought in local chefs to teach, many of whom had come into the kitchen shop. During the COVID-19 pandemic, with in-person cooking classes halted, Kirkiles-Smith, who has been a vegetarian since high school, earned professional certifications as a plant-based chef and culinary coach.

“You are what you eat,” Kirkiles-Smith says. “And if you don’t have the basic skills to prepare a meal, you often rely on ready-made and ultraprocessed foods which can lead to chronic illness.”

Kirkiles-Smith has started teaching more of the Weekend Kitchen cooking classes herself. She says she teaches her cooking classes “like a lab class” with procedural efficiency and detailed explanations. She makes an effort to highlight the history of the dish they are making and its ingredients, as well as its nutritional content. Lately, Kirkiles-Smith has been doing a cookbook series, highlighting recipes from new plant-based cookbooks including a vegan Chinese cookbook and plant-based Indian cookbook.

Kirkiles-Smith is currently working on getting board certified as a health and wellness coach. She says she wants her “retirement career” to refocus on her passion for food and nutrition.

“Even though I scientifically ventured away from my roots in nutrition, it’s a way for me to tie everything back in with food and health.”

This work relates to CAHNR’s Strategic Vision area focused on Enhancing Health Locally, Nationally, and Globally.

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