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Department of Dietetics and Nutrition celebrates 75 years

October 21, 2019

By Kristi Birch

Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., RD, the current, and fifth, chair of the KU Department of Dietetics and Nutrition, with three students
Adrianne Griebel-Thompson, MS, RD, LD, CLC; Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., RD; Nicholas Marchello, MS, RD, LD; and Rachel Smith, RD. Photo: Selena Jabara, KU Medical Center.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Department of Dietetics and Nutrition at the University of Kansas Medical Center. In 1944, Hildegard Knopp and Jan Granger were the first students to graduate from the department's dietetic internship program. The department had been founded a year earlier with the approval of the American Dietetic Association, now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

With Ruth Gordon, RD, as the first chair, the mission of the department in those early days was to provide healthy food and prevent nutrition deficiencies for patients in the Eleanor Taylor Bell Hospital, now the University of Kansas Hospital, and to train dietitians to do that work. The ensuing three quarters of a century saw the mission expand beyond the walls of the hospital and food service management and delve deeper into the science of nutrition.

"Although nutrient deficiencies remain a concern, today's dietitian has a broadened focus—preventing chronic disease as well as using nutrition therapy to treat disease in acute care, outpatient and community settings," said Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., RD, the current, and fifth, chair of the Department of Dietetics and Nutrition. "We think about food as components of medical care."

Sullivan, who is also the Midwest Dairy Endowed Professor of Clinical Nutrition, says that one of the big clinical changes that has happened over the years is that in addition to talking to people about what they eat, the department now conducts physical exams on people to assess nutrition deficiencies. "Cracks in the mouth and tongue show there's a vitamin deficiency, and if the eyelid is pale, that means there's an iron deficiency," she said. "There are physical signs for these deficiencies, you just have to look. Then we can draw blood to confirm."

Research into how nutrition impacts human health is also a critical part of the mission now. Sullivan is working with the University of Kansas Alzheimer's Disease Center to study how diet can affect cognition and the aging brain. Susan Carlson, Ph.D., the AJ Rice Professor of Nutrition and a University Distinguished Professor, has conducted seminal work identifying DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) as a conditionally essential nutrient for developing infants. Associate Professor Jeannine Goetz, PhD., RD, LD, has focused her research on weight management for people with serious mental illnesses. Holly Hull, Ph.D., also an associate professor, researches the impact of the maternal environment on the health of mothers and their children, while Assistant Professor Aaron Carbuhn, Ph.D., RD, CSSD, looks at the intersection of nutrition with sports and exercise science. And Heather Gibbs, Ph.D., RD, LD, an assistant professor, has developed a tool to help address nutrition literacy among English and Spanish speakers.

The department has expanded its educational programs as well. In addition to the certificate program, students can also pursue a master of science degree in dietetics and nutrition as well as a doctorate in medical nutrition science. It is the only department in the country with a certificate program in dietetics and integrative medicine.

Doctoral candidate Nicholas Marchello, MS, RD, who became interested in nutrition after losing 130 pounds in 2002, said he chose the program at KU because it "offers an elite research program in nutrition, with world leaders in their fields providing strong mentorship in the worlds of research and education."

The department celebrated its 75th anniversary in May at a dinner held in the Ad Astra room of the University of Kansas Medical Center's Health Education Building. Many graduates are members of Kansas City Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the celebration was held in conjunction with the Academy's annual Sevie Nelson awards banquet.

"Graduates of our programs are serving the needs of Kansas and the Kansas City metropolitan area, said Sullivan. "But we also have graduates all over the country and globally, including in leadership positions in industry, health care, government and academia."

Last modified: Oct 22, 2019