Editor’s note: This story, written by Nancy Mills Mackey, originally appeared in Spirit magazine, a publication of the Texas A&M Foundation.
When Americans go to the grocery store, they think more and more about the nutritional value of the food they buy, thanks to scientists and health policymakers such as Dr. Joanne R. Lupton. During nearly 27 years of research and teaching, Lupton has brought national recognition to Texas A&M University. She has improved nutrition for astronauts in space and bolstered efforts to prevent colon cancer. Now she focuses on moving nutrition science and education into the arenas of public policy, improved food labeling and healthy diets.
“My real passion is taking basic science and translating it into understandable terms that can make a difference through public policy. If you do it right, it prevents disease and should reduce health-care costs,” said Lupton, whose widely published research on fiber, healthy fats and colon cancer prevention has been funded primarily by the National Institutes of Health and NASA’s National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI).
Food for Thought
A distinguished professor, regents’ professor and university faculty fellow, Lupton credits some of her success to being named the William W. Allen Endowed Chair in Nutrition at A&M. That 1995 honor, created through the Texas A&M Foundation, allows her to expand nutrition research activities.
Recently Lupton allocated chair funds for six $25,000 graduate fellowships that will assist six new faculty members in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science with research and data collection. “I did this because it’s a difficult time for funding for new faculty right now, and it’s also a difficult time for grad students to get financial support. As their research matures, it can better attract grant funding, which is getting harder to get. It’s a win-win now and in the future.”
In 1984, when Lupton came to A&M as an assistant professor at age 40, she worked in the Department of Animal Science, where she was one of three faculty members focusing on human nutrition. A self-described late bloomer, she had previously enjoyed a successful career in the arts, which included working for internationally famed architect I. M. Pei and with major New York museums and corporations. “But that wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she said.
Lupton returned to school so she could write a book about the science behind cooking. “I wanted to take one course in food science to complete the book, but they insisted I pursue a degree. Along the way I found nutrition, and I’ve been in love with it ever since.” She graduated in 1980 with a master’s in food and nutrition from California State University and in 1984 with a Ph.D. in nutrition from the University of California, Davis.
Lupton began her academic career at Texas A&M working on the relationship between diet and colon cancer. “I wanted to work in an area that could have a public health benefit and chose colon cancer research because it is directly related to diet and because colon cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. I decided that was where I could make the most impact.”
Lupton, founding chair of the A&M nutrition faculty, devised a winning formula for success: “Read a lot in your field. Carve out an area of expertise. Identify the research problems. Seek funding for projects to answer those questions. Attend national meetings, and join associations and committees. Solve one problem and do good work, and they’ll ask you back. That leads to the next step and the next.”
In 2009 Lupton was one of four Texans named to the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine. She has chaired academy panels that determined the recommended amount of fiber intake and the definition of dietary fiber. A visiting scholar at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, she helped develop its evidence-based system to evaluate health claims. Lupton also developed principles for selecting healthful foods during service on the 2005 federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and is now working on package-labeling criteria.
She has led the NSBRI’s Nutrition, Physical Fitness and Rehabilitation Team in developing dietary interventions to counteract impediments to long-term space flight such as bone loss, muscle wasting and exposure to cosmic radiation. She also advised on nutrition standards for NASA space flights.
Lupton has mentored more than 80 graduate students and many more under graduates. “Mentoring is my favorite part of what I do. Young people are excited about life and have inquiring minds. It gives me real pleasure to find someone with promise and give them opportunities to be successful.”
Allen Foundation Scholar and graduate student Lindsey Field ’04, who is both a registered and licensed dietitian, is Lupton’s former staff assistant. With Lupton’s encouragement, Field returned to school for a master’s in nutrition and a certificate in nonprofit management from A&M’s George Bush School of Government and Public Service.
“Dr. Lupton has received many awards for teaching excellence and mentoring. She has been my mentor for over seven years, and it’s great having her as my major professor,” Field said. “She is dedicated not only to her work and the staff and faculty, but even more to her students. She’s not satisfied leaving a classroom unless every student understands the material.”
Respected Team Player
Although Lupton has had many opportunities to work elsewhere, she stays at A&M because she loves it. “Texas A&M has been so good to me. I love the undergrads and graduates from all over the world. They are hardworking and personally responsible. Also, in science you can’t do it alone, and I have established a team here that I have worked with for 20 years.”
Field points out that “many Americans have been touched by Dr. Lupton’s research and knowledge. She’s had a hand in scientifically determining what we teach about good nutrition and the amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fats, fiber and energy recommended to maintain good health.”
Dr. Robert S. Chapkin, regents’ professor and university faculty fellow, offers similar praise. “Dr. Lupton is a leading authority in dietary protection against the development of cancer and the assessment of dietary requirements. She exemplifies our top faculty and brings tremendous credit to our university.”
Obesity Behavior Modification
Lupton is gratified to see more supermarket products with whole grains and fiber and fewer with added sugars and saturated fats. But two-thirds of adult Americans are still overweight or obese, she said. “We don’t know enough about modifying behavior that causes obesity,” Lupton said. “We need to combine behavior research with nutrition science.”
Lupton is developing programs in nutrition and public policy at the university, the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Rural Public Health and the Bush School. She also has received grants to teach others how to conduct research in space life sciences, nutrition and public policy.