CLEMSON — Vanderbilt University assistant professor Steven Townsend, whose groundbreaking research has shown how human milk sugars help protect infants against dangerous pathogens, will speak at Clemson University on Nov. 7. Townsend and his team are unraveling the science of human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) and how they maintain the balance of good and bad bacteria in infants’ gut flora.
A rising star in the synthetic organic chemistry field, Townsend will speak about this research, as well as organic synthesis and anti-cancer compounds, at 4 p.m. Thursday in Hunter Auditorium. His seminar titled “Playing defense with human milk” is sponsored by the College of Science’s department of chemistry. It is free and open to faculty, students, staff, the general public and media.
A dynamic speaker with a compelling life story, Townsend was born and raised in Detroit, the oldest of five children in a single-parent household. The first-generation college student was introduced to research as an undergraduate at nearby Oakland University. After earning his bachelor’s degree in chemistry, he went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he earned his doctorate in organic chemistry.
Townsend joined the faculty at Vanderbilt in 2014 after completing post-doctoral research at Columbia University and Sloan-Kettering Institute. In 2019, Townsend earned an $800,000 National Science Foundation CAREER award for his research on human milk, a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to discover new antibiotics, and was named to the Chemical and Engineering News “Talented 12” list of scientists.
Townsend’s interest in human milk sugars research is due, in part, to a personal experience. When his newborn daughter refused to take formula from a bottle while briefly in the neonatal intensive care unit at the hospital, he wanted to understand her preference for and the overall value of breast milk.
At Vanderbilt, Townsend has a special affinity for undergraduate students. “Undergraduate research played a huge role in my upbringing,” he said. “I’ve trained about 12 undergraduates during my five and a half years at Vanderbilt, and I rarely turn down an undergraduate for research. I think research teaches you, regardless of the topic, a great deal about fact-driven knowledge.”
Townsend is a former athlete who describes himself as a “regular dude.” He collects sneakers, smokes meat every weekend, and enjoys composting and gardening. He and his wife have two young children.
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