Nutritional Science and Babies
Stover, a first-generation college student who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Saint Joseph’s University, began to explore nutrition while earning a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biophysics from the Medical College of Virginia. “I became interested in questions related to how food and nutrients affect health,” he said. “For 23 years, I did research on folic acid, trying to understand why some women were genetically susceptible to having a child with spina bifida and why those women, when they took extra folic acid, could reduce that risk by up to 70 percent.”
Stover’s groundbreaking work led to his selection as a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 1996. In addition, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Many state, federal and international policymakers and experts quickly took notice of his work. Stover served on expert committees for a variety of organizations, including the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the Federal Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “We discussed food fortification policy and how we could use food to reduce disease risks like spina bifida, which we virtually eliminated because of that food fortification policy,” Stover said.
His career, including serving as director of Cornell University’s Division of Nutritional Sciences, continues to focus on the ramifications of a poor diet. “I was involved in a number of expert committees with the National Academy of Sciences on how we can better align agriculture with human needs so we can lower health care costs," he said. In fact, diet-related chronic diseases cost the U.S. economy about $1 trillion per year. "There’s a big disconnect right now between production agriculture and the consumer that needs to be harmonized. The profitability of agriculture has to increase if we want future generations to enter the profession, as the average age of the U.S. farmer or rancher is approaching 60 years old. Furthermore, we must increase the quality of agriculture production to better align with consumer attitudes and preferences, but most importantly with their health needs."
Welcome to Aggieland
Stover’s arrival at Texas A&M AgriLife in 2018 opened up many new opportunities. “When Dr. Stover arrived, it was clear that this was a turning point not only for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, but also for the four statewide agencies that are part of Texas A&M AgriLife,” said Dr. Susan Ballabina, Texas A&M AgriLife deputy vice chancellor. “It was a real opportunity to think about showcasing who we are, what we’re doing and how we’re we’re building on our strengths to become a national model.”
Stover’s overarching vision is to improve the quality of life of every Texan by creating healthy people, healthy environments and healthy economies through AgriLife’s teaching, research and extension efforts. His position at AgriLife gives Stover the platform, manpower and reach to make this vision a reality. In his role, Stover oversees more than 5,000 employees of AgriLife’s four statewide agricultural agencies: Texas A&M AgriLife Research, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, the Texas A&M Forest Service and the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory. He also leads Texas A&M’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which has 7,800 students and 400 faculty members in 14 academic departments.
A vital part of his vision, Stover believes that Texas A&M AgriLife is uniquely positioned to address some of the pressing health issues of our time. “We can use genetics and precision agriculture technologies to increase the nutritional quality value of agricultural products, providing more economic value and profits for producers,” he said. “For consumers, we will develop next-generation smartphone technology that allows point of care diagnostics that track diet and disease biomarkers in real time. This will inform consumers how their dietary choices change their chronic disease progression.”
It’s a bold initiative, but according to Stover, it’s one Texas and Texas A&M is ready for. “Texas is a state that is heavily invested in agriculture, which represents about $100 billion annually to the economy. At the same time, it’s also a state with a major public health crisis related to diet-related chronic disease,” he said. “So, if there is any state that would be motivated to address this problem and to be a national and global model for how to better align agriculture and the consumer, it’s Texas.”
Advancing Texas is an awareness and development initiative. “We want to travel around the state and get people excited about what we’re doing by appealing to their passions,” said Ballabina, pointing to AgriLife’s depth and breadth of knowledge as well as its reach within Texas, the nation and the world.
The Advancing Texas Roadshows will engage stakeholders—including policymakers, former students, industry leaders and donors—to share state and regional information, raise awareness and learn about regional needs. Each roadshow will have a theme appropriate to the region. For instance, the Rio Grande Valley event will focus on growing citrus, while Amarillo’s presentation will highlight the area’s beef cattle production. “We really want to highlight the expertise that we have across the state,” Ballabina said.
Equally as important, the Advancing Texas Roadshows will also connect urban areas with rural Texas’ agricultural roots and help harmonize agriculture with consumer needs. “As Texas becomes increasingly urbanized, Texas A&M as a land-grant university has an obligation to meet the needs of every Texan. The best way we can do that is make every Texan aware of agriculture and its value in their daily lives, health and well-being,” Stover said. “We want them to understand the role forests play in environmental health and the role that food plays in their human health. We want everyone to understand the relevance and importance of what we do.”