Balz Frei, the director of the Linus Pauling Institute (LPI) at Oregon State University since 1997, is stepping down from the position at the end of the month: “It’s really time for me to, as I say, 'drop the mic,'” he joked in a recent interview with Mid-Valley Health. “'Pass the baton,' that sounds a little more elegant.”
During Frei’s time at the institute, it raised $48 million through the university’s capital campaign. Some $15 million of that went to help pay for the construction of the Linus Pauling Science Center on campus. The 58-year-old Frei said he enjoyed his work raising money and meeting donors, but in a recent question-and-answer session, the focus was on how he believes the institute has helped advance the discussion about nutrition and the work its researchers have done.
(The interview has been edited where necessary for length and clarity; a longer discussion can be found in the online version of this story.)
Mid-Valley Health: Why retire now?
Balz Frei: Because I feel I have done what I can for the institute. It’s really time for me to, as I say, drop the mic or pass the baton, that sounds a little more elegant. It’s really the right time for me.
Mid-Valley Health: What was the appeal of the job when you first came here?
Frei: Well, it was a great challenge and a great opportunity at the same time, to build the institute from scratch here at OSU. It was very small. I was the only principal investigator or faculty when I started here. … It’s obviously very emotional for me to leave the institute because I feel it’s my baby, I built it up from scratch. My entire career here at OSU has been as director of the LPI. But, as we said, it’s time to move on. I’ve done what I can for the institute.
Mid-Valley Health: What’s the work that you’re proudest of here?
Frei: The scientific output, the creation of new knowledge in the field of molecular nutrition, all these published papers, over 650 papers published over the years by researchers in the LPI. Just contributing to new knowledge in the field of what I would call molecular nutrition. Scientifically, that’s the biggest contribution that the LPI has made. Drilling down into the mechanisms of how nutrients work, how nutrition works in the body, because it’s critically important to understand these mechanisms if you want to come up with strategies to improve health and prevent disease through nutrition and health and dietary supplements. … The whole idea that vitamins and minerals have important functions in the human body beyond just preventing deficiency and promoting optimum health but also in chronic disease prevention, (that) there is a role for these nutrients and dietary supplements.
I mean, nutrition in general is really the future of medicine. (Look) at the obesity epidemic and all these other metabolic diseases, metabolic syndromes, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, where nutrition is the key to preventing these kinds of diseases and conditions. And that’s really where we need to go in the future, preventive medicine and molecular nutrition and disease prevention through diet and lifestyle. I think we have made very important contributions there.
Mid-Valley Health: And the institute has been active as well in outreach to medical professionals and the local community.
Frei: That’s in the spirit of Linus Pauling. I’m proud of the Micronutrient Information Center. (The center has a website at http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic that offers information about micronutrients.) … Millions of people around the world come to that website and get evidence-based, scientifically accurate and peer-reviewed information on nutrients and dietary supplements. It is a field rife with misinformation. …
And we’re building a new website, and I think that’s going to be another important one. So the idea behind the (new) website is that instead of searching for a specific nutrient, you can search for a disease, and find out nutritional influences on that particular disease, or how diet and specific dietary supplements can be used to help prevent or possibly even treat that disease. … It’s the same information (as is on the Micronutrient Information Center), but more user-friendly and in a language that’s more appropriate for the public. … We are hoping to launch this website later this year, probably in the fall. ….
The other program we have in the institute in terms of outreach is the Healthy Youth Program, and that’s more of our local face in the community here. But they have done a very good job, too, in working with local schools and health authorities and other organizations in the community to educate youth and their families about the importance of diet and lifestyle and health and disease prevention and to put kids on the right track, the right health trajectory, by giving them hands-on skills. …
Mid-Valley Health: Where do we still need to make progress in getting out the word about nutrition?
Frei: I think we are having a hard time getting through to the medical community in general. It’s not surprising. The way medical doctors are being trained is to treat disease with pharmaceutical drugs. They’re not so much into disease prevention. … I mean, nutrition for them is something that they’re not paying much attention to. … To really lower health care costs, we need to increase our efforts to prevent disease and stem the obesity epidemic. So if we could communicate that more effectively to physicians, if they would have training where nutrition is more emphasized, then we probably would have a true health care system, not a sick care system. Right now we are reactive, rather than proactive.
Mid-Valley Health: Do you have plans for retirement? Fly-fishing, running, painting? Doing more health and nutrition work?
Frei: All of the above. Actually, they gave me a fly-fishing rod for my present, so that’s something I certainly want to continue to do. I will continue to do some consulting. … I may stay involved just doing some reviewing of papers and things like that, but not doing research. I’m closing down my lab. But, there are lots of things I’d like to do.
Mid-Valley Health: From my perspective, and I think this ought to be top of your resume, your legacy is that you’re the person who convinced me to take vitamin supplements.
Frei: Well, good. All right. That’s the whole point, trying to help people make the right decisions to help them improve their health.