A Recipe for Success

It takes a lot of time, effort and determination to craft an award-winning recipe

Story by Hannah Harper, photo courtesy of Karnes Archives and special collections

Above: Students in a foods classroom during summer school 1913.

The Department of Nutrition Science has been perfecting its recipe for an award-winning department for 110 years, and the main ingredients include talented faculty, staff and students, cutting-edge research, and an impressive industry partnership, all of which were celebrated at its 110th anniversary celebration on May 6, 2016.

“It was an opportunity to reflect on more than a century of accomplishments and changes, and to plan for the future,” says Connie Weaver, distinguished professor and head of the Department of Nutrition Science. “I knew it would be special, but it exceeded my expectations. While celebrating the accomplishments of current faculty and alumni, the event also paid tribute to the Purdue nutrition pioneers who made the department’s success possible.”

The Department of Nutrition Science has a long history of educating and encouraging both men and women in science. In 1905, the School of Science established the Department of Household Economics, which offered a dietetics and nutrition course. Often it was called the “Women's College,” and Purdue President Winthrop Stone’s reasoning behind the creation of the department was to give “women opportunities comparable in scientific and technical value with those enjoyed by men.”

In 1926, Purdue established the School of Home Economics, which included the newly formed Department of Foods and Nutrition. Harold Hawes, the department’s first male graduate, earned his degree in dietetics in 1942.

Significant department research began in the 1940s with the study of requirements for and sources of ascorbic acid, the development of a “Master Mix” for baking, interdisciplinary research on meat and eggs, and a partnership with the animal science and poultry departments.

The scope of research expanded in the 1950s when Helen Clark, an associate professor, researched the protein and amino acid requirements of humans, leading to increased knowledge of these nutrients in an era of world food problems. Professor Avanelle Kirksey’s work in maternal, infant and child health spanned three decades and addressed vitamin B6 needs during pregnancy and childhood.

The 1990s ushered in a new focus on calcium research with Weaver’s Camp Calcium. The camp was funded by the National Institutes of Health, and the calcium metabolism results obtained from the study helped establish new Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) in 1997.

In 1991, Weaver became head of the Department of Foods and Nutrition. The department was renamed the Department of Nutrition Science in 2010 and joined the newly formed College of Health and Human Sciences.

Following in the footsteps of nutrition research pioneers like professors Clark and Kirksey, the department continues to participate in groundbreaking research that addresses national and global health issues.

“We’re arguably the No. 1 nutrition science-type department in the country,” Weaver says.

“Not just the faculty and discovery, but our graduate training program is just superb. I think what is unusual at an undergraduate level is that our students have all these opportunities to participate in research and get work experience and support themselves. They also get hired because they have this rich experience of getting to run a clinical trial or working in the basic laboratory, and not so many places have that opportunity.”

Weaver credits the talent of Nutrition Science faculty, staff and students for the success the department continues to experience.

“They win large external grants to pursue projects that put us at the cutting edge of discovery,” she says.

“A number of key activities across campus are led by or co-led by our faculty. It makes our department more well-known and considered a partner for the main efforts across campus, and we’re known nationally and internationally because of that.”

Jill Wanchisn, Lauren Link (NUTR , ’11) Purdue sports dietitian, and Rachel Clark (NUTR ’98) continuing lecturer and Purdue sports dietitian. From left, Jill Wanchisn, Lauren Link (NUTR ’11), Purdue sports dietitian, and Rachel Clark (NUTR ’98), continuing lecturer and Purdue sports dietitian. (Photo by Brian Powell)

Ongoing studies include an exploration of the link between the Mediterranean Diet and cardiometabolic health, and training researchers to analyze big data using a combination of biology and statistics. Weaver, who is collaborating with other faculty members, recently received an $8.8 million grant to conduct a summer-long camp to study diet patterns and sodium levels in adolescents to reduce hypertension and the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The new Nutrition and Exercise Clinical Research Center, located in Stone Hall, was dedicated during the department’s anniversary activities.

The center will contribute to a variety of research endeavors through controlled meals, diet assessment, bone and body composition measurement, clinical services, and a state-of-the-art exercise facility. The research relates to the role of diet and exercise in health and chronic disease prevention.

Weaver is excited about the research projects planned for the facility.

“For example, Heather Leidy, who is the center’s director, has a grant to study the importance of breakfast on health and the influence of the protein content of breakfast,” Weaver says. “Her preliminary data suggests protein doses divided between each meal are more beneficial, so if you have more protein at breakfast than is typical in America, it’s healthier. She’s going to do a big study to evaluate that more carefully.”

Despite rapid advances in technology and changes in societal health and nutrition concerns, the Department of Nutrition Science still has one guiding philosophy, “Nutrition Science: The Science of Nutrition, the Art of Helping Others.”

“Everything we do is very science-oriented and evidence-based, but we’re in a field where the end goal is to promote human health,” Weaver says. “I hope we continue to do that and do it bigger and better.”

For additional photos from 110th Anniversary Celebration: store.brianpowell.info/NutritionScience

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