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Through Our Rutgers, Our Future, a campaign to raise an unprecedented $1 billion in donations to Rutgers, the university aims to dramatically increase private support for faculty and research, students and learning, university and community programs, and campuses and facilities. Here, the founding director of the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health discusses how private giving can help bring multiple research areas under one roof to work on a common problem: obesity and related illness.

What we eat

We have a lot on our plates. Take, for example, pasta.

We may choose pasta because we like the way it tastes or because it’s a part of our cultural heritage. We may choose it because we need comfort; its digestion causes the brain to release a mood-enhancing hormone. Or, maybe pasta is all we can afford at the local grocery store, where fresh produce is far more expensive.

What we eat, why we eat, and how our bodies respond to our diets involves an intricate network of biological, environmental, and psychological factors. This is part of the reason why single-focused approaches to “eating healthy” always fall short. It’s also why the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health, to be built on Rutgers’ Cook Campus in New Brunswick, is a top university priority.

A balanced approach

To be established with the help of a $10 million gift from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and another $10 million research endowment from an anonymous donor, the institute will bring together researchers from throughout Rutgers’ three campuses to work on a common problem: obesity and nutrition-related diseases.

The vision is to have researchers from nutritional sciences, food science, animal sciences, exercise physiology, pharmacology, nursing, medicine, and other disciplines working under one roof. A molecular nutritionist might study nutrient-gene interaction alongside an anthropologist researching societal eating behaviors; a psychologist investigating the best ways to motivate healthy eating might collaborate with a health economic analyst working on government-subsidized food policy.

“No one researcher, no one department, has the breadth and depth to tackle the complexity of the overall problem,” says Peter Gillies, the institute’s founding director. “But as a whole, Rutgers has the competencies and capacity to do so.”

The university's food science and nutritional sciences doctoral programs are highly rated in recent National Research Council rankings.

The institute is also raising private funds for endowed chairs, which provide ongoing salary and research support. These funds will help Rutgers recruit the best and most dedicated researchers from around the world.

Preventive measures

A great deal of the institute’s focus will be on preemptive nutrition: how to help people eat right early in life to delay—or perhaps even prevent—the onset of chronic adult diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

As a former heart disease researcher focused on drug discovery at DuPont, Gillies knows firsthand how important prevention is. “In an increasingly aging population where people end up taking multiple drugs, the problem of adverse side effects and drug interaction is a huge issue,” he says.

There are also profound economic implications. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States now spends $147 billion annually—nearly 10 percent of total medical spending—on obesity-related diseases.

“Why are we doing this?” poses Gillies, referring to the creation of the institute. “How can we not?”

For New Jersey, and for the world

New Jersey’s remarkable ethnic diversity will allow the institute to uncover insights and solutions that can be applied globally. For example, what the institute learns about how a particular diet affects New Brunswick’s growing immigrant population from Oaxaca, Mexico, has the potential to reach the people of Mexico and similar populations throughout the United States.

The institute’s 80,000-square-foot, open-concept facility will include clinical research laboratories, smart classrooms, a 250-seat auditorium for professional conferences and community education, a model preschool that teaches nutrition and exercise habits, and an indoor “healthy eating courtyard” to serve simultaneous research and outreach functions. Open to the public, the courtyard will offer nutritional information and healthy food options while also collecting data on food choices.

Through the institute, Rutgers can offer a life-changing example for the entire nation, and eventually, the world. “Rutgers is well positioned to make New Jersey not only the Garden State,” says Gillies, “but also the Healthy State.”

Your campaign gift can support faculty research centers like the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health.
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