Dr. Nini Callan looks to understand the myofascial complex, role in health and disease

NUNM alum conducts clinical research studies at Helfgott Research Institute, looking at the downstream impact of fascia.

Nini Callan, ND

With the National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM) gearing up to host Research Week from April 29 to May 3, we’re shining a spotlight on the work of our researchers.

Nini Callan, ND, MS

Program: Postdoctoral Research Investigator, NUNM

Degrees: Doctor Naturopathic Medicine; Master of Science in Integrative Medicine Research, NUNM, 2015

Hometown: Pacific Northwest

What are your research interests and how did you get there?

My primary research interest is in the myofascial complex and its role in health and disease. Right now I’m particularly interested in its role in fibromyalgia, as well as in foot conditions. Additionally, I’m interested in mobility, the role of inflammation in chronic pain, posture, women’s health, bone health, and physical and/or mind-body interventions. That looks like a huge swath of topics, but they’re all interconnected in my mind! It was a journey to get to this place where I have a concrete sense of where I want to go with my research and who I am as a researcher.

Research wasn’t even close to being on my radar until Dr. Heather Zwickey presented on the then new Master’s in Integrative Medicine Research degree (now Master of Science in Clinical Research) during my first term of medical school. She is an enthusiastic and inspiring presenter, then and now, and coupled with the idea that we could ask interesting and important questions about the medicines we were learning about in order to better understand them—and to better, down the pipeline, help patients—immediately caught my interest and seemed of the utmost importance. I like to deep dive into the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of things. It was an intuitive ‘yes’ for me, and I shortly enrolled in the master’s program concurrent with my doctorate degree.

“It was a journey to get to this place where I have a concrete sense of where I want to go with my research and who I am as a researcher.”

My thesis was an in-vitro study looking at the impact of modified citrus pectin on breast cancer cells, as my interest at that time was primarily women’s health and cancer. Just before graduating from both programs, another new and interesting program was introduced to me: the BRIDG post-doctoral fellowship. Upon applying and going through the interview process, I was fortunate enough and very blessed to be honored with one of the three inaugural CIH clinician positions, housed at the University of Washington. It was an amazing education in and introduction to the research world, in cross-collaboration, and in learning to tap into my interests instead of a pre-determined curriculum (which, after five years of medical school, was a skill I had to relearn!).

All of the mentors, educators and fellows in BRIDG were incredible, and it was an instrumental period. I had the good fortune of being introduced to the most amazing and generous primary research mentors: Dr. Nancy Woods and Dr. Margaret Heitkemper, who not only opened their research and well-earned wealth of knowledge to me, but also invested in me and paved the way for me to be successful. They modeled humility, an abundance mindset, and an openness to sharing and bringing me up and alongside them that imprinted strongly on me and is how I endeavor to approach my own work to this day. Science is collaborative and cross-pollinating at its best, and I believe strongly that we are better scientists when we approach our research (and research colleagues) with curious, humble, and open hands.

At the conclusion of BRIDG, Dr. Ryan Bradley integrated me into the Helfgott Research Institute and has been instrumental in helping my progression as a researcher there. I’ve continued learning from him and receiving mentorship in a variety of NUNM research projects to this day.

Research truly is a team sport, and other instrumental mentors, collaborators, and colleagues that I’d love to give a heartfelt shoutout to include: Dr. Zwickey (NUNM), Dr. Beth Darnall (Stanford University), Dr. Scott Mist (OHSU), Dr. Fred Stevens (OSU), Michael Mahon (Moving Mountains Institute), Dr. Terrance Manning II (RestorePDX), Anders Gundersen (NUNM), Dr. John Phipps (NUNM), Dr. Deanne Tibbitts (NUNM/OHSU), Dr. Yvonne Lin (University of Washington), Dr. Catherine Booth-LaForce (University of Washington), Dr. Karen Sherman (University of Washington), Dr. Susan Reed (UW/Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center) and Dr. Cindy Trowbridge (University of Texas at Arlington). I also work part-time as a clinician in private practice, and my research interests and clinical focus have slowly, over time, aligned. This is a very good thing.

How are your research interests manifesting?

My research interests are manifesting as clinical studies done at Helfgott, industry-sponsored research, NIH grant applications, and collaborations with clinicians outside of NUNM. I create study protocols, launch studies, train clinicians and younger researchers, do project management, act as a clinical investigator or co-investigator, build online databases, give presentations, dream, ideate, and write publications.

“The NUNM research community is curious, open, supportive, and collaboratively minded.”

What are the implications of your research?

Understanding the complexities and intricacies and roles of fascia in the body, and in health and disease, is an emerging science. There is more we don’t know than we do know, so the horizon is large. This in and of itself is inspiring, as it feels like I’m just heading out on an epic adventure, looking for treasure and realizing that being on the journey is also a treasure.

Additionally, as a clinician, working with the fascia through various physical medicine modalities in a variety of patients, I see the downstream impact of fascia, both when it’s healthy and when it’s not. It is super cool to have the chance to explore the questions that arise, as well as to contribute to the body of research that will eventually lead to a deeper understanding and better patient care. Healthy fascia is integral to health and wellness and mobility and strength and everything, in far more complex ways than we currently know and can articulate clearly. I’m eager to add to this work.

Why is NUNM a good place to do research?

NUNM is a good place to do research because I have the freedom to pursue whatever research interests me, which is rare, especially for younger scientists. The leadership endeavors to invest in individuals, and they are actively pursuing opportunities to continue building the research infrastructure.

Additionally, the NUNM research community is curious, open, supportive, and collaboratively minded. I feel fortunate to be part of this group, and I highly value being part of a system that allows all of us to rise when one of us rises. The opportunity to give back is highly motivating for me, and I feel NUNM provides me with opportunities to do this as well.