A Chat with the Dean

In November, the Friedman School’s Dean Eileen Kennedy announced plans to pursue a yearlong sabbatical beginning next June. Kennedy, currently in her seventh year as dean, will conduct research during her sabbatical and work on a nutrition policy book.  I sat down with her to reflect on all that she’s accomplished so far and to ask a few questions about what she sees on the horizon.

You have had such a distinguished career, from working for the USDA, to your involvement with the National Academy of Sciences, the Surgeon General’s Task Force on Health Disparities, etc. Where do you see yourself headed in the future?

I see myself after my year of sabbatical coming back as a professor of nutrition at the Friedman School. And actually I’m hoping that the activities that I focus on during my sabbatical will not only enhance research program at Friedman School but will provide even more opportunities for students- both masters and doctoral students to become involved in that research.

Can you tell us a little more about your year on sabbatical plans?

The year on sabbatical is going to go so quickly. I have 40% of my time allocated to this new CRSP project and I’m really looking forward to it because I think there are enormous opportunities and challenges for looking at how to improve nutritional status in developing countries and my expertise is specifically in sub Saharan Africa and Asia so on sabbatical I will continue to launch that research which is a 5-year initiative with Patrick Webb and Will Masters.

There’s a nice intersection with the Nutrition Collaborative Research Support Project (CRSP) activities and what I’ve been doing with the UN groups on Scaling Up Nutrition. Because the priority of Scaling Up Nutrition is, “What should we really be doing at country level?” we have to get beyond the old model of international organizations dictating what should be done at country level. It’s very important to engage country policy officials on what they see as priorities and the expression that is typically used is to get “buy in” from country policy officials on what they see as the needs for their populations- what they see as the constraints at infrastructure level and how we work collaboratively to fill those gaps. There’s a real knitting together of the CRSP activities and the Scaling Up Nutrition and I continue to interact with groups like the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Food Program on these activities so I’m excited about that. I will have a major amount of my time next year to devote to in-country developing country research which, obviously, in my current position, would be very difficult.

The other thing is, as a result of thinking about issues relating to nutrition policy, I will be writing a book about public policy and nutrition, which again I’ll have a large amount of time to think through those issues and how they will morph into a book. I know the year will go quickly before I return to the Friedman School.

Congratulations on your upcoming book! How will your new book be different from or similar to the Nutrition 203 Policy class that you currently co-teach with Dean Webb? Do you anticipate that this book will be incorporated into the curriculum of the Friedman School in the future?

It was a real challenge for us when Patrick and I started working on the class together because we reviewed the existing literature in public policy and food policy with an eye to ‘was there a text book that we could use in the class?’ My closet of textbooks is filled with public policy textbooks which tend to come out of either political science or political economy and are very useful as a background to 203 but they are not specific to nutrition. If you look at the second class of books on food policy (like the Peter Timmer et al. book) it’s very focused on food policy but really doesn’t delve into the complex issues related to nutrition policy. Patrick and I have talked about how if we had had an appropriate public policy and nutrition book, we would have used it for the class and I’m hoping that [my book] is at least a resource that becomes available to future students.

Whether or not what we’re working on becomes a textbook for the class, I don’t know. It always is really dictated by the faculty member that oversees the class. I’m hoping it’s something that students and faculty, not only in the US but elsewhere, think makes a major contribution to the literature. The themes that I will focus on include a spotlight on nutrition policy (which I don’t see a text that currently exists there) and a spotlight on linking domestic with international policy (I see an enormous cavern in lack of books that focus on that). It really will benefit from, and I will say this in my Introduction, the rich discussion that I’ve had with students who have been in the class. Every time we have class, I benefit from that discussion.

The need for the integration of US and international policy is becoming clearer and clearer as you see globally, the changing nutrition profiles. We talked in class about places where you see side-by-side food insecurity, hunger, under-nutrition with diet chronic disease problems, obviously the classic one being overweight and obesity. While this wasn’t an original part of the Scaling Up Nutrition activities (we’ve really been talking about the under-nutrition part of the continuum), but as I travel around, I’m getting more and more questions about, particularly in urban areas, what to do vis-à-vis interventions of government policy because we’re beginning to see it.

Rather than using the scenario in the US where we should have started thirty years ago because the trends were very clear on increasing overweight and obesity in children, we’ve lost several decades in some of the poorest countries in the world- like Bangladesh. In parts of Haiti, they’re saying, ‘Well what do we do now? What interventions or policies can we invest in that really change that upward trajectory of obesity to really turn it around?’ And those are great questions and we don’t have a lot of experience on the classic interventions that deal with diet chronic diseases and we particularly don’t have a lot of experiences in urban areas. So many of the interventions that we’ve talked about, outside of the United States, have targeted rural areas.  It’s a great area of research for students that want to get involved in this.

Having been the Dean of the Friedman School for seven years now, how would you like to see the Friedman School grow in the future?

I anchor this back to what I say to students, and hopefully we have more and more examples now of where this can be illustrated. The school is training the future leaders in nutrition and part of that training is obviously the academic training- the class work. But a second part of that is the research experience and a third part of that is the experiential learning and for a lot of students, sometimes the first linking of research to what they’ve learned in class is their summer internships. I think we are increasingly seen as a stellar institution [so that employers] snatch up our graduates. This became clear at the recent 30th anniversary celebration where we had a little over 300 people participating. Not only did we have some students there, but we had a huge group of alums who talked about how, as future employers, they really do snatch up our graduates across the spectrum.

I hear this all the time: They love our Nutrition Communication graduates because our graduates not only have the communications background, not that that’s not important, but a lot of schools have that. But what I’m told is really a unique aspect is not only the communications but they also have the technical nutrition and that’s invaluable.  It used to be the only places our Nutrition Communications graduates were going was in the US, but now increasingly international organizations (UN groups, international NGOs) are looking for that because the strong grounding in nutrition is seen as a real plus. Whatever program I talk about- our Nutrition Epi students get snapped up. Yes there’s the Epidemiology, but we are one of the few places where students get the Nutrition plus the Epi. Master’s students in Humanitarian Assistance get snapped up by international NGOs and I can go down the list. I don’t want to limit this to any one program at the school.

Where I see us getting stronger is continuing to train the future leaders in nutrition and a part of that is always having our both our curriculum and our research really addressing what the cutting-edge themes are and that will evolve over time. We can never stagnate. We have to continue to grow. A part of that is that our students challenge themselves and our faculty challenge themselves to think about how to refresh our coursework, refresh our research and continue to be cutting edge. You should never be a slave to your old tattered yellow pages of notes (although now it would be PowerPoint slides) that you teach from year after year. The issues change and our approach to research and teaching has to be dynamic.

During your time as dean, research dollars have grown 91 percent. That is a huge accomplishment and a huge legacy to leave behind.  How were you able to accomplish this?

Research dollars have increased, not just during my time here but also during a very austere period financially and economically. I think again this gets back to, whether you’re talking about funders like the National Institutes of Health or foundations or bilaterals like USAID, there is a theme that is coming across from their solicitations.

We know the issues relating to nutrition are more complex and if you look at where we have made major inroads it’s looking at this complexity of nutrition. I’ll use two examples. 1) The recent CRSP grant where it is no longer looking at improving nutritional status of women and children in a very a narrow silo but it’s looking at the issue of how do we link agriculture sector, health sector, and nutrition as a vehicle for improving nutritional status. I think where we have been effective, and it reflects our diversity of expertise and thinking both in the student body and in the faculty, is our ability to put together a proposal for a multidisciplinary approach. You can’t do that at the last minute. It shows the track record we’ve had and looks at issues like agriculture, food and environment from a public health perspective. All of that reflected in our proposal and I was pleased that in our best and final questions from USAID, all questions were really minor budget questions. They weren’t on technical and what we were told, after the fact, was that our technical proposals were superb. They were so well thought out. That doesn’t happen in a 30-day response period. It happens because we’ve been working at the cutting edge of different disciplines.

Now on the other side, the domestic work that Chris Economos, Miriam Nelson and others have been doing, it no longer pigeon-holes US nutrition issues in a very narrow way. It takes a systems approach, Shape Up Somerville being a part of that. A systems approach means that there are many, many different levers that you have to think about- whether its preventing and improving childhood overweight and obesity, or when Kathleen Merrigan spoke here a couple weeks ago, she talked about looking at a different paradigm of food insecurity across the population in the US. It’s much more complex and all of our work has a rich tapestry of approaches in dealing with that issue.

We really have looked at this complexity of nutrition in our research and teaching, linking science to policy in our research and thinking and a very translational approach. And it showed in the funding stream when a lot of other organizations (particularly in the past two and a half years) have had a decline in their research budget and we’ve had an increase. I think that’s because we planted the seeds for this many years ago rather than just suddenly having an epiphany one morning and realizing we needed to change our approach. It builds on past successes and the funding is the metric that says look, it’s worked!

Do you have any last messages that you’d like to leave for readers of the Friedman Sprout?

We have such great students. I am constantly learning from students. Really, the high point in my day is interacting with the students and I’m really looking forward to not missing out on that on my sabbatical overseas. I’d like to continue to interact, not just with my advisees, but hopefully if I have a successful sabbatical, I will be able to provide students new opportunities in both coursework and research for the next cadre of students. This school is a wonderful community of students and faculty.

 

Meghan Johnson is a first-year FPAN student with a specialization in Health & Nutrition Communication. She relocated to Boston from Washington DC and is doing her best to acclimate to the lingo, the bitter winds, and clam chowder.

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