Nielsen's unusual mix: theology, public health
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Samara Joy Nielsen’s vita stands out like a hydrangea in a wheat field.
Lodged in the list of academic credentials -- a biology degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and a Ph.D. in nutritional epidemiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- is a master’s of divinity, with a social justice focus, from Duke Divinity School at Duke University, Durham, NC.
So when Dr. Nielsen talks about nutritional epidemiology, she uses a broader context of social justice and theological philosophy. When she discusses national food security issues, she illustrates with an Old Testament story. When she mentions her career, she likens teaching to preaching, the classroom to a congregation.
Dr. Nielsen moved to Kansas during the 100-degree summer to join the Department of Human Nutrition’s public health program. She teaches undergraduate and graduate level courses in public health and nutritional epidemiology.
She grew up on Long Island in New York and has lived in Boston, Cincinnati and Chapel Hill and Durham in North Carolina.
Nutrition scientist goes to divinity school
As a nutrition scientist at RTI International, she worked on projects such as the Department of Defense survey of health-related behaviors among reserve military personnel, consumption of imported foods for the Food and Drug Administration and exploratory research on estimation of consumer-level food loss conversion factors for USDA.
Why the leap from nutrition research to divinity school?
"I felt too far removed from the people I wanted to help,” she said. “I wanted to be more hands-on in helping the public. And I had some questions of my own, too.”
At Duke, she discovered that she loves preaching and teaching, she said. She worked in the North Carolina prison system and contemplated being a prison chaplain.
She chose teaching.
Guides students to think for themselves
She calls herself a guide. “In school, students get knowledge and they get facts. They need someone to guide them. I think I’m good at challenging people without pushing them, saying ‘You are doing well but you could be doing so much better.’ ”
The assistant professor shies from dealing with absolutes, especially with students. If a student asks if he can miss a class, she won’t tell him yes or no. She lists his choices and possible outcomes. He makes the choice. She doesn’t.
She does not shy away from the importance of tackling public health issues. “Nutrition is only part of the equation of solutions we set up for public health,” she said. Problems such as hunger and disease can be resolved only within the context of social justice, the view that everyone deserves the same rights and opportunities.
“Globally, there is no way to solve hunger problems without making a huge economic overhaul, not just in places like Africa, but also in the U.S.,” she said.
Although she chose a university career, Nielsen keeps teaching in the theological and spiritual realm nearby. At the Manhattan Jewish Congregation she helps lead services and on Rosh Hashanah last week she read from Genesis and the book of Samuel.
Story and photo by Human Ecology communications