The Division of Nutritional Sciences, the interdisciplinary graduate program housed within the College of ACES, recently marked its 50th anniversary in a weekend-long series of events. More than 160 alumni, faculty, students, and administrators came together to celebrate the program’s long list of accomplishments, including its ranking in the top five nutritional sciences graduate programs in the United States.
“DNS had an enjoyable, informative, educational, insightful two days of celebration of 50 years of excellence training leaders in interdisciplinary nutritional sciences through education, innovation, and discovery,” said Elvira de Mejia, DNS director and professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.
Since 1968, more than 500 students have graduated from the program. Alumni now hold prominent positions in academia, industry, and governments around the world. Five distinguished alumni, graduating between 1976 and 2013, spoke during the event and captured the evolution of the program throughout its history.
“Our current students stand on the shoulders of those who came before them,” said Kimberlee Kidwell, dean of the College of ACES, during her remarks. “Our alumni should be very proud of the ripple effect they have created here, as our students continue the legacy of conducting fabulous research with amazing faculty advisors to address the world’s greatest challenges associated with nutrition, health, and well-being.”
The celebration also recognized the major contributions of DNS faculty to nutritional science as a discipline. The interdisciplinary nature of the program has led to important advancements in lipid and cholesterol metabolism; animal nutrition, including commercial diets; the relationship between diet, the gut microbiome, and human and animal health; and many more areas.
Speaker Rod Johnson, former DNS director and current head of the Department of Animal Sciences, pointed to the program’s Vision 20/20 seed grant program as a means of fostering creativity and interdisciplinary study. The program, initiated by Johnson, has now funded over $1M in interdisciplinary nutrition-related research, which has resulted in $16.8M in external funding and $1.3M in internal funding; an 18.1-fold return on investment.
“Vision 20/20 was established to encourage interdisciplinary nutrition-related research,” Johnson said. “It was intended to foster interaction and collaboration, and with an 18 to 1 return on investment, I’d say it has exceeded expectations.”
Keynote speaker John Erdman headlined the dinner banquet, amusing guests by likening the history of DNS to the plot of Star Wars.
“A long time ago on a campus not so far, far away, it was a period of civil war,” he said. “Departments, colleges, and many labs were operated as silos. But in 1966, a rebel alliance began to form among nutrition faculty across campus.”
He said the university administration – “the Empire” – balked initially, having no previous experience dealing with an interdisciplinary, cross-campus graduate program. But early leaders persevered and the Illinois Board of Higher Education approved the Nutritional Sciences Program in 1968.
Erdman, professor emeritus in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, studies how dietary changes reduce the risk of prostate cancer, among other pursuits. He has been involved with DNS in various roles for 42 of its 50 years, including serving as a past director of the division.
With 50 years behind them, DNS leaders are looking forward to the next 50. “DNS is committed to continuing working hard to maintain and enhance the scientific quality and development of our students to equip them to address complex interdisciplinary problems utilizing traditional and novel biological and sociological approaches,” de Mejia said.
From left: DNS associate director Jessica Hartke, former director Sharon Donovan, former director John Erdman, former director Rod Johnson, and current director Elvira de Mejia. Photo by Ariel Majewski.