Purdue HHS distinguished alumna advances chronic disease prevention through national and international research

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa, rhoffa@purdue.edu

Barbara Millen headshot

Barbara Millen(Photo provided)

Barbara Millen, a 1972 Purdue University College of Health and Human Sciences graduate, notes that her path to success was paved with acting on once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, from answering an office  call late one Friday night to meeting a group of friends who introduced her to Purdue. Now director of the Boston Nutrition Foundation and president of Millennium Prevention Inc., Millen’s career has allowed her to pursue a wide range of innovative research projects and leadership positions in academia, government and international settings.

“I would tell my graduate students years later, ‘You have to be aware and understand that in any career there can be incredible opportunities that present themselves when you least expect it,’” Millen said.

Because of her significant contributions to the field of nutrition and chronic disease prevention, Millen is being recognized with the 2023 HHS Distinguished Alumni Award.

“This is where my career began, and so it’s particularly meaningful when those in your own discipline acknowledge the contributions that you’ve attempted to make,” Millen said.

After she graduated with her bachelor’s degree from Purdue’s Department of Nutrition Science, Millen completed an internship in nutrition at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston. It was there she met a group of friends who encouraged her to set up a meeting to learn more about Harvard University’s public health program. As good fortune would have it, the distinguished head of the department invited her into his office and set her on her path toward earning her Master of Public Health and later Doctor of Public Health in the department. 

“I knew very early on that public health was going to be a wonderful career, and the opportunity to get a doctorate, and to, through that, become a leader in the field was incredible and drew me right in,” Millen said.

After earning her doctorate, Millen later became a professor of public health, family medicine and medical sciences at Boston University, where she was the founding chair of the master’s, PhD and MD-PhD programs in medical nutrition sciences at the Boston University School of Medicine.

One late evening as a junior health sciences faculty member at Boston University, her phone rang with another opportunity of a lifetime: Submit a proposal to develop innovative nutrition and preventative medicine research protocols for the groundbreaking Framingham Heart Study. It was one of the first long-term, population-based epidemiological studies that sought to identify the primary risk factors for prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases (CVD).  

“There isn’t any better known longitudinal epidemiological research study in the world, and when I answered my office phone that late Friday night, I had the wherewithal to respond because of my training in clinical nutrition and public health, my work at the MGH internship, and the confidence that somewhere along the way was instilled in me,” Millen said. 

She served as director of nutrition research for the Framingham Heart Study for more than 30 years.

After publishing from the Framingham study, Millen received national and international recognition for her work, including that of the World Health Organization (WHO). She was invited to come to Geneva, Switzerland, to be a part of the WHO’s Inter-Health study, which was looking at common risk factors for major chronic diseases — including CVD, overweight and obesity, diabetes, and lifestyle-related cancers — on an international scale.

“In the course of my career, populations in many nations — which had rampant, preventable maternal and infant mortality — also began to develop high rates of chronic diseases,” Millen said. “When countries became wealthier, particularly those living in urban areas tended to adopt an unhealthy Western lifestyle, and Inter-Health was mounted because of the emergence of chronic disease globally. Thus, the work our research team and others were doing on nutrition, other lifestyle behaviors, and chronic disease prevention became globally relevant, and I had the opportunity to work with an international team on this amazing study that the World Health Organization decided to coordinate.”

Millen poses on steps with a group of students

Millen (front left) poses with a group of students from the Boston University School of Medicine.(Photo provided)

Millen ultimately had the opportunity to establish and become president of Millennium Prevention Inc. when she received translational research funding from Boston University to take her team’s epidemiological research team external. At Millennium, she designed HealthMain, a proprietary web-based software platform for clinical and public health practice settings that offers comprehensive, personalized nutrition and lifestyle assessments and behavioral intervention strategies to prevent and manage chronic diseases.

Among her accomplishments, in 2009, Millen was recognized for her contributions to outstanding research literature with the Dr. Elaine Monsen Award from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She also was tapped for the NIH Expert Panels on Clinical Practice Guidelines for CVD Prevention as well as the Management and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity, and she served as chair of the 2015-20 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Committee.

“Once we could quantify and define new ways of looking analytically at an overall dietary pattern, I was convinced we were approaching a new way of focusing preventative services. We could integrate an overall nutritional approach with other modifiable lifestyle behaviors. HealthMain creates a unique, personalized lifestyle risk profile to guide behavioral interventions that can be tailored to meet the unique health and behavioral needs and preferences of the individual,” Millen said.

Millen noted there’s still plenty of innovation in her future as she continues her work on HealthMain in collaboration with professionals in academic, healthcare and public health settings. In addition to her work with Millennium Prevention Inc., Millen is also an avid conservationist and philanthropist. She chairs the national board of the Center for Plant Conservation at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance; vice-chairs the Emerald Necklace Conservancy Board in Boston; serves as a trustee of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society; and is a life trustee of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. 

“You have to keep a dream in front of you and be open to possibilities; work very, very hard; and be absolutely committed to maintaining a sound and ethical professional code,” Millen said.

Ultimately, Millen said she owes much of her success to her start at Purdue because even as an undergraduate researcher, her faculty and mentors saw her potential.

“One day, my adjunct research professor called me in, and she said ‘I’m pretty sure I’m going to read what you write in the future,’” Millen said. “Along the way, superb educational opportunities, faculty mentors, professional peer review, and acknowledgement and life-changing experiences shaped my career and provided extraordinary possibilities.”