The Division of Nutritional Sciences (DNS) hosted “The Changing Face of Human Nutrition: 1965-2005,” a symposium featuring internationally-known nutritional experts, to celebrate the 40-year career of Jean-Pierre Habicht, the James Jamison Professor of Nutritional Epidemiology, who retired June 30.
“Nutritional epidemiology is the study of the distribution and determinants of nutritional well-being in particular populations and the application of this to improve nutrition in people,” said Prof. Edward A. Frongillo Jr., nutritional science.
The science can help guide policy makers at national levels.
“You can use a technique of epidemiology to understand how to choose who should receive nutritional intervention,” said Prof. Kathleen Rasmussen, nutritional science.
Habicht’s work in nutritional epidemiology and on the nutrition and health of poor mothers and children went beyond Cornell to the greater world, particularly developing countries in South and Central America; not only was Habicht a professor at Cornell for 28 years but he was also an advisor to the United Nations and chair of the committee on International Nutrition Programs and the National Academy of Sciences.
At Cornell, his influence impacted the division’s graduate student curriculum, by helping the department see the breadth of nutrition from molecules to populations, according to Rasmussen. He co-wrote NS 607: Nutrition as an Integrating Discipline and set into motion the Cornell Food and Nutrition Policy Program.
The course took students through every lens of a nutritional problem. For example, students would look at Vitamin A’s molecular biology, see how the vitamin impacted communities and examine policies concerning Vitamin A, according to Purima Menon, a visiting fellow in the division and a former student of Habicht. Habicht advised her on her dissertation and works with her now as a technical advisor for her project in Haiti. She added that NS 607 takes different perspectives and apply them all to one problem.
A project of Habicht’s involved the Indonesian government, and “early warning” nutrition in Indonesia influenced what unfolded here on campus, according to Frongillo. It led to a number of other programs related to the systematic collection of data and concerns national problems in other countries, showing the two-fold nature – between Cornell and the rest of the world – of Habicht’s career.
An interest in research methodology defines a part of Habicht’s work. Sonia Hernandez grad said that he designed a standardized way in which researchers make measurements in the field, and all people in Mexico doing anthropometric measurements use his methods.
Habicht’s prolific career led him to important, enduring and influential theories.
“His probably greatest conceptual advance is the understanding that when we try to improve something about nutrition in one place, the results of that work may be different in another place. Basically, the effects of our actions depend on the context in which we’re working.” Frongillo said. “The impact of this idea is only still being realized.”
Above all, Habicht’s career focused on people and how research can improve the lives of people in developing countries.
Habicht’s work improved Oportunidades, a national health program in Mexico, according to Hernandez, a resident of the country. The beginning phase of the program planned to provide and federally fund nutritional supplements to children at five years old, but Habicht’s research in Guatemala suggested children benefited more if they receive supplements when they’re under two years old.
The lecturers at the symposium included speakers from various academic institutions and health organizations, reflecting Habicht’s influence in both education and public policy.
Archived article by Jessica DiNapoli
Sun Staff Writer