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RDs to Help Lead Efforts to Use Agriculture, Nutrition to Improve Public Health

Texas A&M’s Institute for Advancing Health Through Agriculture (IHA)—the world’s first academic institute to connect responsive agriculture, precision nutrition, and behavioral and social sciences research for public health—announces an expansion of its leadership team.

The IHA is composed of three focus areas: responsive agriculture, precision nutrition, and healthful living. It also includes a USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) unit, where Texas A&M leadership will collaborate on accelerating innovations, technologies, and systems approaches to promote health, lower health care costs, and manage diet-related chronic disease.

The three leading experts added to the IHA’s leadership team under its director, Patrick Stover, PhD, are the following:

  • Regan Bailey, PhD, MPH, RD, CPH, an internationally recognized nutrition scientist and elected member of the National Academy of Medicine, now serving as associate director for precision nutrition;
  • Rebecca Seguin-Fowler, PhD, RDN, LD, CSCS, an internationally recognized public health scientist, now serving as associate director for healthy living; and
  • Elizabeth Parker, DVM, an agriculture research leader with vast international and national agriculture policy experience, now serving as interim associate director for responsive agriculture.

“The nation’s food supply, and the way in which it is produced, is the key to substantially reducing diet-related chronic diseases, which costs the US economy over $1 trillion annually and affects 50% of adults,” says Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp. “Our Institute for Advancing Health Through Agriculture, led by the top talent in nutrition, agriculture, and behavioral research, is taking this challenge head-on. Their work will save lives here in Texas and beyond.”

“The mission at USDA-ARS is to find scientific solutions to agricultural challenges, and this collaboration with Texas A&M is a part of what we do each day,” says USDA-ARS Administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young, PhD. “Building this new institute with a foundation of strong leadership and great scientific minds will help us tackle the health challenges that impact Americans every day.”

Stover says, “This past year has brought us a pandemic on top of a diet-related chronic disease epidemic, which has been catastrophic for people across the world. Obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes are not only primary contributing factors identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 90% of all COVID-19 deaths, but they are also diseases that are responsive to diet. As a platform for the exchange of big ideas and big data to support agriculture as the solution, we will be able to tackle this underlying public health crisis in a completely new way, bringing together agricultural production and healthy communities.”

Leading Precision Nutrition
Bailey is an internationally recognized nutrition scientist who joins the IHA from Purdue University. She’s an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine for her work on measuring nutrition status to optimize health. She was part of the USDA and the US Department of Health and Human Services’ 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

Bailey’s research has focused on how dietary intakes relate to health outcomes. She has created models combining nutrients from food and dietary supplements and used these models to identify differences in nutritional risk by gender, race, ethnicity, life stage, and income, suggesting the need for population-specific interventions and public health policy.

Her work with the IHA will build on her expertise, leveraging the study of precision nutrition, which seeks to understand nutrition based on individual differences in responding to diets and their impact on health because of genetics, epigenetics, age, sex, disease status, sleep patterns, and other factors.

“This multidisciplinary institute is poised to solve the complex challenges facing human and planetary health,” Bailey says about the IHA. “I am eager for the opportunity to work with Dr. Stover, a visionary leader, and all the talented Aggies I have met and have yet to meet.”

Bailey completed a dietetic internship and master’s degree in food and nutrition at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She earned her doctorate in nutrition science from Pennsylvania State University. She earned a master’s in public health from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.

Initiatives in Healthful Living
Seguin-Fowler is an internationally recognized public health scientist with expertise in community-based nutrition and physical activity intervention research.

Before joining the IHA as associate director for healthy living, Seguin-Fowler served as associate director for Texas A&M AgriLife Research. At the same time, she served as chief scientific officer for the Healthy Texas Institute, a role she’ll continue in addition to her associate director role for the IHA. The Healthy Texas Institute pairs evidence-based program implementation and evaluation across the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and the Texas A&M Health Science Center, with the goal of improving community health in South Texas.

As IHA associate director, Seguin-Fowler will set the vision and goals for the IHA faculty in community-engaged interventions and dissemination research. The research will focus on primary prevention strategies for chronic disease, enhancing food access and built environments in underserved communities. The team aims to develop scalable and sustainable models that will improve community health and lessen health care cost burdens.

“We want to understand behavioral choice in a sociocultural and environmental context,” she says, “developing more adaptable solutions that fit different individuals, communities, settings, and systems.”

Seguin-Fowler earned her bachelor’s degree in clinical exercise physiology from Boston University. She earned a master’s degree in nutrition communication and a doctorate in food policy and applied nutrition from Tufts University in Boston.

Guiding Responsive Agriculture
Parker has extensive national and international experience in agricultural research and policy. Previously, she focused on US farm policy for multiple chairmen and ranking members of the House Committee on Agriculture professional staff. She also focused on resource mobilization, global disease strategies, and policies for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Parker intends to build on interconnecting networks as she works with local and international programming to accelerate the responsive agriculture research within the IHA.

Responsive agriculture is a science-based, dynamic systems approach to agriculture that seeks to respond to the growing public health challenge of escalating chronic disease while considering environmental sustainability and economic viability. This approach opens new opportunities for large- and small-scale innovations in production agriculture to improve human and environmental health.

“This is an exciting opportunity to help provide agricultural solutions in a number of key areas,” says Parker, who holds a doctorate in veterinary medicine, a bachelor’s in biomedical science, and a bachelor’s in veterinary medicine. “Whether it’s growing food or consuming food, we’re exploring global topics of interest at the Institute for Advancing Health Through Agriculture.”

National Reach
The IHA includes the USDA-ARS Responsive Agricultural Food Systems Research Unit, in which researchers will work with other USDA-ARS programs and land-grant universities nationwide to bring big data, state-of-the-art sensors, and computational systems approaches to responsive agriculture and precision nutrition.

Funded at $20 million annually, the research unit will be made up of a mix of new ARS scientists and Texas A&M faculty throughout Texas. In collaboration with IHA leadership, USDA-ARS is actively recruiting talent to support this unit.

The IHA relies on funding from federal, state and other entities to achieve its mission. Objectives include advancing research, knowledge, and practice as well as informing science-based policy that connects and enhances human, environmental, and economic health; resiliency; sustainability; and prosperity across the Ag-Food-Health value chain. The institute aims to be a model nationally for positioning agriculture as the solution to problems in human and environmental health, as well as economic prosperity. The IHA is a statewide program of The Texas A&M University System and is headquartered at Bryan-College Station. More information about the IHA is available at iha.tamu.edu.

— Source: Texas A&M Institute for Advancing Health Through Agriculture