by Katherine Pett
A retrospective look at the illustrious career of Tufts scientist Dr. Miriam Nelson as she moves to her new position as the Director of Sustainability for the UNH Sustainability Institute.
When I traveled to Dr. Miriam Nelson’s office on Tufts’ Medford campus, I was stumped. Where in her long career should our conversation start? As the Dean of the Friedman School, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian said in his letter to the Tufts community, “Tufts’ loss is of course the University of New Hampshire’s gain. Here at Tufts, Mim [Dr. Nelson] leaves behind an indelible legacy that stretches back 30 years to her days as a graduate student.”
Dr. Nelson, who started as a scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) studying exercise science, has built her career from the lab bench to the world stage, creating a bestselling nutrition book line, a national organization for women’s health, and serving on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee twice. This March, Dr. Nelson will be leaving Tufts University after 30 years to become the Deputy Chief of Sustainability and the Director of The Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire (UNH).
In 1983, Dr. Nelson graduated from the University of Vermont and came to the Tufts University School of Nutrition, still located on the Tufts Medford campus. As she progressed through her education, completing her dissertation on women’s health and exercise in 1987, Nelson was one of the first generation of Tufts students to do her graduate research at the HNRCA.
After completing her PhD, Nelson took a brief hiatus from Boston in Washington, DC as a Congressional Research Fellow for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), which in retrospect, seemed to foreshadow her future work.
“I was very involved in the nutrition monitoring bill, which became the basis of the dietary guidelines, which is funny, because I was very instrumental in getting that through. I didn’t know at the time, I’d be so involved in it thirty years later, “she said.
But after a year in DC, she returned to Tufts—this time with a one-year contract at the HNRCA.
It’s easy now to look back on Dr. Nelson’s career and see a linear trajectory. Her degree from Tufts and work on Capitol Hill create an ideal base for her future endeavors. But in the moment, it was impossible to see how all these factors would come together. “Really loosely, I see that there have been several different careers that I’ve had at Tufts,” she said.
The John Hancock Center and Strong Women Program
One of these careers was at the HNRCA where she and colleagues conducted numerous studies looking at physical activity, nutrition, and healthy aging. They aimed to discover how people dealing with chronic conditions (diabetes, heart disease, frailty, etc.) could optimize health through nutrition and exercise. But over time Nelson and her colleagues’ interests diverged from the mission of the HNRCA.
“I was slowly moving towards a community setting or a home-based setting, [rather than the more clinical work typically done in the HNRCA],” she explained.
So when the Jaharis building was built a block away from the HNRCA, Dr. Nelson decided to move.
As part of the shift, Dr. Nelson founded the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Obesity Prevention in 1999.
“We started with a tiny little grant from the dean at the time, Irv Rosenberg, who believed in us, and two people. And we grew it to about a 55-person team and a budget around $7 million a year,” she said.
The John Hancock Center team, through funding received from John Hancock Financial Services and the New Balance Foundation, achieved remarkable outcomes over the next decade, including the Shape Up Somerville studies led by Dr. Christina Economos and innumerable collaborations with other researchers including many Friedman faculty.
Another of Nelson’s careers was as an author and community activist. In 1997, Dr. Nelson released Strong Women Stay Young based on her and her colleagues’ research that would become the first of a series of “Strong Women” books. The books and the ensuing interest they created led to further research.
“The books I wrote because of the research I was doing. But then because of the books we started doing a lot of research in communities, and we started the StrongWomen Program which is now national.”
The StrongWomen Program provides resources to help women start their own community-based programs to help stay healthy as they age by training StrongWomen leaders who provide exercise and nutrition counseling to their communities.
Since leaving the lab, Dr. Nelson and her colleagues had been, “thinking more about making monumental population shifts as opposed to clinical work.” A collective impact approach is evident in the John Hancock Center as well as in the mission of ChildObesity 180, which was founded in 2009 by Dr. Economos, Peter Dolan and Dr. Nelson.
Using her strong background in science to take system-wide approaches to nutrition and research led to her appointment as Vice-Chair for the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans in 2008 and as a member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) in 2010 and again in 2015, which is one of her most lauded accomplishments.
Sustainable Food: Championing Sustainability as Part of the DGAC
Since the release of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, little else has been discussed in the nutrition world. Dr. Nelson, who strongly recommended that the guidelines include sustainability, was at the center of the action.
The evidence of controversy, she said, is clearly present in the public comments of the advisory committee’s report. For the 2010 report, there were 2,186 public comments submitted. For the 2015 report? Close to 30,000.
“I feel responsible for about 23,000 of those [comments] because of the sustainability piece. It’s hit the intersection of what people are caring about and their deep-seated values, and also the social conscience of a nation. You’re seeing the polarization of very few in the private sector that don’t want to see any kind of link with sustainability,” she said.
Making a recommendation for sustainability was something the Advisory Committee had to think long and hard about: How could they frame it within the scope of US dietary guidelines? According to Dr. Nelson, the issue of sustainability was one of the really novel parts about the 2015 report.
Ultimately, it is within the purview of the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to do what they feel is best with the technical report. But Dr. Nelson said the decision to exclude sustainability from the guidelines was due to pressure from Congress, which was in turn feeling the heat from private interests, particularly from the beef industry.
But even adding the concept of sustainability to the technical report was a step in the right direction according to Nelson.
“The kicker here is that the guidelines have always been concerned with food security. And if you think about food security for future generations, we need to think about a sustainable diet,” she said.
Director of the Sustainability Institute at UNH
In her new position at UNH, Dr. Nelson will get to work with the longest standing sustainability establishment in higher education. The Sustainability Institute has several arms: it works to create a greener environment and culture within UNH but also works on regional and worldwide issues such as local food systems and climate change. Dr. Nelson seemed eager to get started.
“My job is really trying to grow the institute to have a larger global impact. And certainly I want to connect food sustainability, public health and climate change,” she said.
Though the scope of her work has been vast, a consistent theme throughout her career has been close ties to higher education. For Nelson, this creates a thread that links all her work together.
“I see myself as a continuous learner. To me there is a progression to [her current position with UNH] from nutrition biochemist and exercise physiologist. Those skills for scientific inquiry have served me well.”
Katherine Pett is a second-year student in the Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition Program. She is the co-editor of The Friedman Sprout with Matt Moore.