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Q&A with Patrick Solverson

Published June 13, 2022, by Judith Van Dongen

Portrait photo of Patrick SolversonIn July 2020—while the nation was still in the throes of COVID restrictions—Patrick Solverson drove across the country from Vermont to start his new position as an assistant professor in the WSU College of Medicine’s Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology. Stored safely in his back seat was $3,000 worth of pure elderberry juice, an essential component of his research on the potential effects of elderberry juice consumption on obesity and metabolic disease.

How did you first become interested in the field of nutrition?
The idea of proper nutrition as preventative medicine has a personal connection for me. I come from a family of folks who are genetically predisposed to obesity and type two diabetes and was an obese adolescent. Losing 60 pounds during my freshman year in high school gave me my first glimpse into the consequences of what you choose to put in your mouth and how that affects health and longevity. It motivated me to switch my major from agronomy to dietetics and go on to earn a master’s in human nutrition, which provided me with an opportunity to conduct nutrition research in a rodent model of a rare metabolic disorder. After my master’s I really wanted to pivot to human clinical trial work and found this rare opportunity at the US Department of Agriculture via a cooperative agreement with the University of Maryland. I spent six years conducting controlled human feeding studies at the USDA’s Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center (HNRC), providing technical assistance on eight clinical trials and leading two myself—one while working on my PhD dissertation and the other as a postdoc.

What drew you to WSU?
After completing my postdoc, I started a faculty position at the University of Vermont in 2019, but it quickly became clear to me that it was not a good fit. I started looking for other places and came across the advertisement for my current position, which was basically a picture of me. I’m a fully trained nutritionist, but I had always had an interest in working in a department that combines nutrition with exercise physiology, the other half of the healthy living equation. So I threw my hat in the ring and spent 10 hours in remote interviews from my second bedroom in Burlington, Vermont, ultimately landing the job sight unseen.

What exactly do you study and why?
My specialty is the study of functional foods and specifically anthocyanins, which are the compound that provides the color of your common edible berries. My dissertation research at the Beltsville HNRC followed from earlier research that showed that anthocyanins have an anti-obesity and antidiabetic effect in rodent models. I was charged with translating that work to humans and was able to show that eating four cups of blackberries a day for a week improved insulin sensitivity and fat oxidation, two measures that predict a person’s ability to lose fat mass and control or prevent type 2 diabetes. However, eating that many blackberries is highly expensive and hard to keep up in the long run, so we needed to find something more feasible and settled on elderberries. Elderberries have five times the anthocyanin concentration found in other berries, and a mere six ounces of elderberry juice per day provides the same daily dose of anthocyanins found in the four cups of blackberries we fed participants daily during my dissertation research.

What research projects are you currently working on?
I have two projects funded by different components of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture that center on elderberry juice. I’m conducting one right now that has research volunteers drink elderberry juice or a placebo beverage twice a day for a week, and then I have them come in to do some clinical testing. If I can find enough study participants to complete that study this summer, I will move on to the second study, which will be similar but will have participants on a controlled diet for four of the seven days in each of the two diet periods. During that study, we will also collect stool samples that my colleague Franck Carbonero will help me analyze for any changes in the microbiome due to elderberry juice consumption. In addition to these two studies, I will be conducting a rodent study in partnership with Ted Chauvin from the Department of Translational Medicine and Physiology. That study will look at the effect of consuming elderberry juice with or without exercise on outcomes like weight gain, body composition, and fertility in a commonly used model of diet-induced obesity.

Where can you buy elderberry juice?
Elderberries are a bit of a fringe commodity with a hocus pocus home medicine twist, which is based on a small amount of research suggesting it has antiviral properties. As a result, you might find products containing elderberry concentrate in your grocery store supplement aisle, but I plead the fifth on their effectiveness. Elderberry juice can be purchased online. For my clinical trials, I procure 100 percent elderberry juice from a distributor in Missouri, the nation’s leading state in elderberry production. As an eccentric researcher, I also have 18 elderberry bushes in my backyard that I’m hoping will have an abundant year-two berry crop this summer so I can press them into juice for my own personal use.

How has being here at WSU helped you on your path to being an established researcher?
The most rewarding experience so far was actually finding my niche here at WSU. It is really inspiring to work alongside other faculty who are just as committed to the discipline as you are and who are driven to make a positive impact on the community. I’ve also really valued the support from administrators like John Roll, who has shown that he genuinely cares about helping me get this work completed and has connected me with folks who can help me achieve that goal.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.