Ursula White’s quest to understand women’s fat
Local researcher looks for answers about body shape and health
Long before Monroe native Ursula White earned a PhD and years before a distinguished career as a scientist was even a fleeting thought, she was a self-described curious child.
“I always wondered about the world around me and why it worked the way it did,” said White. “I was always asking ‘Why?’”
That insatiable curiosity is what drove White into her career as a biomedical researcher, but it’s her family background that led her to specialize in thebiology of fat cells (or adipocytes) and metabolic disease.
“Many relatives on my mom’s side of the family struggle with their weight and have Type 2 diabetes. Growing up, I watched my great grandmother and grandmother struggle with the disease. All of my mom’s siblings are diabetic.”
White’s great grandmother had only a fraction of the resources available to her to manage the disease that people with diabetes have today, and eventually one of her legs was amputated due to complications from the disease.
Seeing the prevalence of the disease in her family left White concerned.“Am I destined to have diabetes, or are there things I can do to prevent it?” White asked. “You know genetics play a huge role, but there have to be other factors at play.”
With those questions in mind, White entered LSU as a biology major, and eventually found herself as a student in a human disease course taught by Jackie Stephens PhD.
White was intrigued by what she learned in Stephens’ lectures about the important role that fat cells play in our bodies and how their actions can influence health.
Upon entering graduate school, it was in White’s last laboratory rotation that she was sure she’d found her passion; and she again found herself learning from Dr. Stephens, who served as her advisor and mentor.
After earning her PhD in adipocyte biology from LSU, White began working at Pennington Biomedical Research Center to pursue her interests in translational research, which applies important findings in basic science—like adipocyte biology—to significant developments in human research to enhance health and well-being.
“My experiences from basic fat cell research sparked my interests to better understand how adipocytes behave in humans. While we know that there is fat in different areas of the body, we want to know if it differs by location,” said White.
Now, White is hard at work on the Apple & Pear research study at Pennington Biomedical, where she is partnering with women in the community to try to understand why women carry weight differently and how it may affect health.
“We know that women who are more apple-shaped and carry their extra weight in their abdomen are at a higher risk for heart disease, diabetes and other dangerous health problems, while pear-shaped women with more fat in their hips, thighs, and buttocks may be protected from these diseases” said White. “Now we want to know why the fat in the abdomen is different from the fat in the thighs and how these differences impact health.”
White is determined to make a positive impact on the health of our community and our state through her work, and she knows first-hand about the power of people who participate in research.
“If it weren’t for people who stepped up in the past to help scientists develop better diabetes medications, many people, including my mom’s siblings, may not be here today,” White said. “When you volunteer for a research study, you are actively changing people’s lives for the better. That’s why I do what I do every day—I want to help people live better lives.”
If you are interested in participating in the Apple & Pear study, you may be eligible to receive health assessments, as well as nutritional/lifestyle counseling, at no cost to you, along with compensation for your time.