Portrait of Sander Kersten
Emily Groff
In College of Human Ecology, Division of Nutritional Sciences

Sander Kersten Ph.D. ’97, an experienced molecular nutrition researcher and academic leader, has been named the new director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences, which is shared by the College of Human Ecology (CHE) and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). 

Kersten, who was also named the Schleifer Family Professor in CHE, comes to Cornell from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, where he was most recently professor and chair of the Division of Human Nutrition and Health. He takes over the role of director from Patricia Cassano, the Alan D. Mathios Professor in CHE.

This won’t be Kersten’s first time in Ithaca — after getting a master’s degree from Wageningen University in 1993, he received a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry from Cornell in 1997. He then completed postdoctoral research at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland before joining the Wageningen faculty in 2000.

Kersten studies the molecular mechanisms that regulate lipid metabolism in the liver and adipose tissue during fasting and feeding. In the past, his group demonstrated the importance of the transcription factor PPARα in the metabolic response to fasting in the liver and discovered the mechanism responsible for the regulation of fat uptake into adipose tissue during fasting. He is currently working to identify the role of several novel fasting-regulated genes in lipid metabolism in adipose tissue and the liver.

Before the semester started, he took some time to answer a few questions about his work and share his thoughts on coming back to Cornell.

What is the focus of your research? 

I want to understand what happens when people don't eat — what happens during fasting and how our metabolism adapts to fasting. Fasting happened a lot during human evolution, and our bodies developed all kinds of mechanisms that shape how we process nutrients and deal with energy. That allowed our ancestors to survive long periods without food, but now, of course, there is food all over. The mechanisms that were once helpful work against us. 

By knowing more about how our bodies respond to lack of food, we can understand how the system sort of gets out of whack when there's too much food. That can also lead to new strategies, either preventive or therapeutic, to deal with the ill effects of overnutrition, like obesity, insulin resistance and heart disease. 

How did you get interested in the field of nutrition?

Well, this goes back a long time, back to high school. I was — and I still am — infatuated with fitness and weightlifting, and that requires a strong commitment to your diet. I started reading books, and then I became more knowledgeable to the point where I thought, hey, maybe I can study this. I got my undergraduate degree in nutrition, and I did my master’s and then I came to Cornell to pursue my Ph.D. in nutrition. So I’ve been with this topic basically from the beginning of deciding what I wanted to do with my life professionally. I recognize that's quite rare! But I can't let it go; I'm still mesmerized. The more that I learn about molecular nutrition in particular, there's still so much that's unknown. 

What drew you to this new role?

First of all, I think Cornell is a great institution with great people. I feel I owe a lot to the Division of Nutritional Sciences and to Cornell in general. I started my scientific journey here as a Ph.D. student. I always had a longing to come back to Cornell and Ithaca, and now the timing is right — my children are older, I was chair of a large nutrition department at a major university in the Netherlands for several years, and I’m looking for a new challenge.

Is there anything you’re especially looking forward to?

There are lots of things. I'm eager to contribute to a division that I owe a lot to. That sounds maybe a little bit corny, but I honestly feel that way. I really want to support others in their research and help them reach their full potential. I think that's the great part of academia. I’m also looking forward to being at a beautiful campus, enjoying four seasons. My wife is a Cornell alum too and we’ve been back many times. It will be nice to spend a longer period and become part of the community. And I’m looking forward to relocating to the US. I’ve always felt very comfortable there.