Investigator Spotlight: Getting to know Izzuddin Aris
Izzuddin Aris, Beyond the CV
Welcome to our spotlight series, where we look beyond the CV and learn more about our investigators. A record number of faculty joined the Institute in 2019 – nine new members, in fact. Three new faculty members were already familiar with the Institute, having studied under senior faculty as research fellows. Meet one of those former fellows: Izzuddin Aris, PhD, an epidemiologist and faculty member in the Division of Chronic Disease Research Across the Lifecourse (CoRAL). Hailing from Singapore, Dr. Aris’s research focuses on prenatal predictors of childhood growth, overweight/obesity, and related cardiometabolic disease. Let’s dive in!
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I'm from Singapore.
Q: Tell us about your educational background.
A: I earned my BSc in Biomedical Sciences and PhD in Epidemiology from the National University of Singapore, Singapore.
Q: Tell us about your work before the Institute.
A: Prior to joining the Institute, I obtained my BSc in Biomedical Sciences in 2010 and PhD in Epidemiology in 2015, both from the National University of Singapore. Subsequently, I was a post-doctoral fellow at the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences from 2015-2017, before joining the Institute as a post-doctoral fellow on a university-sponsored fellowship in September 2017.
Q: Can you explain to us what you do?
A: My research focuses on the paradigm of the developmental origins of health and disease, which postulates that potential drivers of adult chronic disease including obesity and diabetes, have their origins at key stages of the lifecourse. My investigation activities fall within three main areas: 1) Examining the influence of pre-, peri- and postnatal risk factors that affect later child health outcomes; 2) Using sophisticated statistical methods to characterize longitudinal trajectories of growth, body composition and blood pressure throughout the lifecourse, and elucidating its relationships with later cardio-metabolic health outcomes; and 3) Causal inference in observational cohorts.
Q: Describe one of your current projects.
A: One of my current projects aims to characterize health trajectories from birth through adolescence using novel biostatistical approaches and quantify their causal and modifiable determinants. Using data from Project Viva and PCORnet, I have characterized distinct growth trajectory milestones of infancy BMI peak and childhood BMI rebound, and identified several early-life factors, including antibiotic exposure, maternal glycemia, breastfeeding initiation and duration, parental obesity and socio-economic status, affecting these BMI developmental milestones. I’ve also extended my work on trajectory modeling to other important health outcomes – for example, I’ve developed reference percentile curves for birth weight-for-gestational-age in the United States and characterized an important pubertal timing milestone (age at peak height velocity) using these longitudinal modeling techniques.
Q: What excites you most about being at the Institute?
A: The mission of the Institute, together with CoRAL, aligns well with my research interests. I am also excited at the opportunities for collaboration among research investigators, both within the department and across the Harvard campus.
Q: You’ve traveled over 9,000 miles to continue your career, first as a research fellow, and now a faculty member. What brought you here specifically?
A: While I was a post-doctoral fellow in Singapore, my primary mentor – Michael Kramer – advised that I should pursue additional post-doctoral training outside of Singapore. At the same time, he and Emily Oken were also co-principal investigators of one of the cohorts in CoRAL (PROBIT). He recommended me to Emily and liaised both of us together. Subsequently, I obtained fellowship funding to pursue my second post-doctoral stint, working primarily with Emily on the Project Viva and PROBIT cohorts in CoRAL and DPM. My time in DPM and CoRAL had been so enjoyable that I didn’t hesitate to apply for the faculty position with CoRAL when the opportunity arose.
Q: In 2019, you published an updated fetal growth reference, including an online calculator to generate birth weight for gestational age percentiles. What drove the need for this updated tool, and what sort of response have you received from researchers and/or clinicians?
A: Emily and I decided to create the updated reference for two reasons: 1) Previous birth weight-for-gestational-age references in the United States primarily incorporated gestational age estimated from maternal reports of last menstrual period, which are more prone to systematic error than obstetric estimates (i.e., the clinician’s best estimate incorporating all perinatal factors, including ultrasound, menstrual history, and laboratory values), and 2) Existing references were based on data that may not reflect the most current sociodemographic composition of the United States. Thus, the need for an obstetric estimate-based reference that is reflective of the most recent sociodemographic composition in the United States has become increasingly appreciated. The response has been overwhelmingly pleasant – several researchers have been reaching out to us on its use, and they have greatly appreciated the availability of this tool. We’ve also received the first citation of its use!
Q: You’ve transitioned from DPM research fellow to faculty member. What has that transition been like, and what advice would you offer for current research fellows anywhere to prepare for life as a faculty member?
A: I’m highly thankful to be working with a great team in CoRAL and DPM. My transition has been relatively smooth and I’m grateful that many individuals in the department ensured that I had everything needed (administratively and academically) as a faculty member. One piece of advice I would offer is to clearly set expectations and goals, and also know what is expected of you as a faculty member. This would help greatly in framing your research focus as an independent investigator. Identifying a faculty mentor is also of utmost importance, to guide your work and serve as sounding boards to ensure that we are not going “off trail”.
Q: What book/tv show/or podcast do you love right now, and why?
A: I am really into the show called “The Outsider” right now, based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King. I’ve always been a huge fan of adaptations of Stephen King novels and the show is quite riveting and chilling.