From lab to legislation: Purdue HHS alumna advances health across local, state and federal levels

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa,

Jennifer Folliard

Jennifer FolliardPhoto Provided

Having three family members who were diabetic, nutrition played an important role in Purdue University College of Health and Human Sciences alumna Jennifer Folliard’s family. She made the decision in seventh grade that she wanted to major in dietetics and set her sights on finding the best dietetics program in country. She ultimately chose Purdue’s Department of Nutrition Science.

Folliard currently works as the maternal and child health director in the South Dakota Department of Health’s Office of Child and Family Services, which offers a unique way of applying her background in nutrition.

“It’s healthcare. It’s public health. It’s beyond that nutrition-only lens,” Folliard said. “But the field of dietetics and nutrition have done that systems-level thinking— we have those community health classes — so it translated very well into the maternal and child health position. I could apply those same skills to different health topics beyond nutrition.”

When Folliard came to Purdue with a scholarship to join the Nutrition Science Honors Program, she found that she was able to gain a broader understanding of the nutrition profession through the guest speakers, seminars and access to the dean that the program offered. She also joined Professor Dorothy Teegarden’s lab and planned to pursue a career as a researcher, doing the kind of work she was engaged in as part of the lab.

“Dr. Teegarden was so dedicated to me as a student,” Folliard said, noting that Teegarden’s lab advanced her critical-thinking skills without her even realizing that’s what was happening at the time.

It wasn’t until Folliard attended an experimental biology conference as a student in Teegarden’s lab that she discovered public health.

“That really opened my eyes because I thought I wanted to do bench lab science, but it exposed me to public health,” Folliard said.

While Folliard started a career as a registered dietitian after graduating from Purdue in 2004, a few years later, she pursued a Master of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University to marry her love of nutrition with her newfound passion for public health.

“Having a health profession credential and then going into public health, I think, is an advantage,” Folliard said. “What’s great about the dietetics profession is that you’re getting that grounding in healthcare because you have to do all those clinical practice pieces, but you also are getting a grounding in community health and food service and business. The well-roundedness of the dietetics curriculum really suits well to public health, public health administration or any sort of hospital administration because you understand healthcare, community health and that business sector.”

Across the public health and nutrition fields, Folliard has worked on all levels, from the federal government, where she served as director of legislation and policy for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, to on-the-ground work in local communities, where she served as a community health field specialist for South Dakota State University’s Extension program. She said ultimately, her work has always been about bringing people together to advance nutrition and health holistically.

“That’s the through-line for me in all my work is making sure that everybody understands they are all pieces of this and how it all works together,” Folliard said.

With all of her accomplishments and the work she has done to help others, from shaping nutrition policy to ensuring quality healthcare for women and children, Folliard still looks back to Purdue and the relationships she built for getting her to where she is today.

“I can’t say enough good things about my experience at Purdue,” Folliard said. “I just had a lot of support for being at such a big university.”