HHS Distinguished Service honoree works to dispel nutrition misinformation, advance diverse and equitable nutrition field

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa, rhoffa@purdue.edu

Mary Lee Chin Headshot

Mary Lee Chin(Photo provided)

True stories take six times longer to reach people on Twitter than false stories, according to a 2018 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This is a trend 1971 Purdue University College of Health and Human Sciences (HHS) alumna Mary Lee Chin has dedicated her career to shifting in the foods and nutrition industry.

From MSGs to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Chin has used her strong science foundation to debunk misinformation surrounding foods and nutrition through her own consulting business, working with major clients such as Monsanto and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

“It’s a really challenging area, and the challenge is to take that science and turn it into realistic information, removing fears and understanding how people learn, how to develop trust and how to communicate,” Chin said.

A recipient of the 2023 HHS Distinguished Service Award for her significant contributions to the field, Chin credits the Department of Nutrition Science with helping her build her basis of scientific knowledge. She noted that Purdue’s nutrition science reputation played a part in it being the only university she applied to outside of her home state of Massachusetts.

“When I looked at all the different schools, Purdue stood head and shoulders above everything else,” Chin said, noting her pride at being honored by an institution she respects deeply.

Chin’s interest in foods and nutrition is deeply personal, from being inspired by her eighth-grade home economics teacher to experiencing food insecurity firsthand as a child.

“My parents ran the Chinese hand laundry,” Chin recalled. “We were not always food secure, and when you’re not food secure, you have a tendency to focus on food. So that was one aspect in terms of interest in food from almost a physical perspective.”

Chin began her career as a clinical dietitian, working in the pediatric outpatient clinic and the adolescent clinic at what is now the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and later in the Barbara Davis Center for Diabetes. A few years into her clinical career, she was tapped to be the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson for Colorado, which launched her consulting career.

“I really love the profession of nutrition and dietetics — the people who are role models, the people who gently push or shove you into being more than what you think you are,” Chin said with a chuckle. “It was doing the spokesperson work and getting a lot of training in communications that led me into the consulting work because I made networks; I met people. It was so outside of the traditional realm of foods and nutrition, and that’s what really drew me into the consulting work.”

Mary Lee Chin poses before a counter with healthy food with others

Chin (center) poses for a photo after giving a nutrition and dietetics presentation in Denver, Colorado.(Photo provided)

Chin began traveling around the country and growing her network, either speaking or connecting in more than 40 states.

“I really made it my goal to take this information, and through presentations, work with healthcare professionals in different areas to get the science out but to make it usable and non-alarmable,” Chin said.

However, with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Chin’s traveling quickly halted. While she did a number of virtual presentations, one week after the death of George Floyd, Chin became chair of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ diversity and inclusion committee to help advance a more diverse and equitable field, spurring a new career interest for Chin.

“The whole field of foods and nutrition needs to be increasingly diversified, so that’s an area I’ve really been working on right now,” Chin said.

A past member of the inclusion, diversity, equity and access committee for the Denver Botanic Gardens, Chin is now the incoming chair of its board of trustees, where she will continue to help lead the institution’s impact culturally and socially.

While Chin is proud of the strides that have been made across dispelling misinformation and advancing diversity, equity, inclusion and access in the nutrition field, she doesn’t have plans to stop until more progress has been made.

“I would like to think that because of the work I and other graduates have done, there is less controversy and misinformation in foods and nutrition, but because of the quality and quantity of media and communications, there’s more out there, so there’s more work to be done,” Chin said. “Having that basis from Purdue that taught me critical thinking is really important.”