May 2008

Robert M. Russell is stepping down as director of the HNRCA to work on science policy issues at the National Institutes of Health. Photo: Alonso Nichols

A Life in Nutrition

Robert Russell to step down as HNRCA director

Nutrition research and its impact on society have changed markedly in the quarter century that Robert M. Russell has been at Tufts. Director of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging and a professor at the Friedman School and the School of Medicine, Russell is stepping down at the end of the academic year and, looking back, sees the advances made in the field, and the potential for even more growth.

As director of the HNRCA for the last seven years and associate director for the preceding 18, Russell oversaw the establishment of new research laboratories through a critical period, when the role of nutrition in the prevention of chronic disease was in its infancy. "Who would have thought 30 years ago that vitamin D would have a role in cancer prevention or in diabetes?" he asks. "Or that vitamin K might have a role in prevention of osteoarthritis?"

Russell will work with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) next year on science policy issues.

"He has been an outstanding leader of the HNRCA, a force for advancing nutrition around the country and around the world, and a lauded researcher in his own field of nutrition science," says Provost Jamshed Bharucha.

Under Russell's leadership, the HNRCA has sought to influence public policy and medical practice. Take the research findings that provided the underpinnings for changes to the Recommended Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. "A lot of the work from which the new DRIs are derived comes from this center," says Russell, who also chaired the panel of the Food and Nutrition Board that was responsible for setting Recommended Daily Allowances for micronutrients.

And there's more work to do, he says. Looking ahead, Russell sees the center exploring a range of issues in the next 30 years, including alternative nutritional therapies, the role of biotechnology in genetically modified foods and new roles for familiar nutrients.

Under his stewardship, the number of grants coming from the NIH, foundations and industry to the HNRCA more than doubled. To develop postdoctoral and junior scientists, Russell began mentoring programs at the HRNCA in conjunction with the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences. He extended and deepened the interdisciplinary collaboration between the HNRCA, Tufts' graduate schools and Tufts Medical Center. Most of all, he worked to improve the world's knowledge of nutrition, leading not only national committees in the United States but also international nutrition programs in Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Guatemala, China and the Philippines.

Russell is a distinguished scientist in his own right in the field of retinoids and carotenoids and author of hundreds of academic papers. In addition to leading the HNRCA and his own research, he has been president of the American Society of Clinical Nutrition and chair of the U.S. National Committee to the International Union of Nutritional Scientists.

He has also served on scientific advisory boards for the Food and Drug Administration, NIH, the World Health Organization and UNICEF. He is the editor of Nutrition Reviews and co-editor of the text Present Knowledge in Nutrition (International Life Sciences Institute). During his HNRCA directorship, Russell was made a fellow of the American Society of Nutrition, and received other honors, including the DSM-Roche Award for his research in retinoids and carotenoids, and most recently the Kritchevsky Award for his outstanding career in nutrition science and service.

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