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New Home of Rutgers Institute: Interdisciplinary from the Ground Up

Open labs and workspaces encourage the kind of collaboration needed to tackle toughest issues in public health

New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health
The new $55 million home of the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health

If researchers studying food and children’s health bump into each other at the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health, it won’t be by accident.

The new $55 million building on Rutgers University’s George H. Cook campus in New Brunswick was designed with open workspaces and laboratories that are intended to foster the interdisciplinary work that’s necessary to tackle some of the biggest challenges in public health, such as reducing childhood obesity.

While the institute was launched in 2010, university leaders say it can reach its full potential now that it has a dedicated space. It’s intended to serve both intensive scientific research on nutrition and broader student-health and community needs, including Rutgers’ only dining area exclusively devoted to healthy food, as well as space to hold health-related conferences. And while it will start as a location for a variety of research, including work to support the health of the university’s student athletes, it’s also designed to serve an even wider range of purposes in the future.

Institute Director Peter Gillies noted that leaders from many different academic departments and schools have committed to support the institute. While its staff is relatively small and devoted to administrative support, professors based in other parts of the university will work in the building.

Gillies pointed to the example of food science professor George Carman, who is relocating Rutgers’ Center for Lipid Research to the institute. It is one of four interdisciplinary centers that in the institute; the others focus on digestive health; health and human performance; and childhood nutrition, education, and research.

Carman “is extraordinarily valuable, because he provides a model for a lot of the university faculty,” in moving to the institute, Gillies said.

“Until you have the building, people don’t understand sort of at a visceral level what it means to come together as a team and work together,” Gillies said. He expects the gleaming facility to attract new faculty members to the university.

Gillies added that while some researchers have rarely ventured beyond their department’s laboratories, all of those working at the institute have already committed to crossing disciplinary boundaries.

“They elected to be a part of it, so I really haven’t had a lot of trouble getting people to buy in,” said Gillies, who has directed the institute since 2010, after a 30-year career as a scientist at DuPont, working on cardiovascular-related medications before moving on to nutrition and health.

The 80,000-square-foot building is the result of a mix of private, foundation, and public funding. The largest share, $35 million, was from the 2012 state bond issue to support higher education, while the Plainsboro-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided $10 million, and an anonymous donor also gave $10 million.

Food scientists will be working yards away from health educators teaching young children about the basics of nutrition, such as how to cook. The institute expects to work with children from a local elementary school.

The building won’t just have laboratories and meeting rooms. The Center for Health and Human Performance has weight- and strength-training equipment that gives it the appearance of a high-end health club. The center will be combining basic science research to nutritional support for Rutgers athletes, building on work it’s already doing with the women’s soccer team.

Outside the building is the latest in playground equipment situated on artificial turf and several layers of cushioning. This is intended to allow the young children who visit the facility for nutrition lessons to also have an opportunity for physical activity, Gillies said.

“Eating right and physical activity are really key factors in terms of managing weight,” Gillies said, noting that the institute’s support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is aiming to end childhood obesity.

The healthy-eating courtyard will only include foods such as vegetables, fruit, minimally processed foods, and multigrain products. Gillies acknowledged that this is likely to attract a select subset of students. “They want their Dunkin’ Donuts, they want their Pepsi,” Gillies said of the bulk of Rutgers students.

The institute also will have a student health clinic, with a specialty on nutritional counseling for those students who could benefit from it.

“You bring these all together and they interact – that’s what makes it special and that’s what makes it interdisciplinary,” Gillies said of the building.

Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences Executive Dean Robert Goodman said the dedication of the new building yesterday was a “landmark milestone” in a process that began 12 years ago, when the institute was first envisioned.

Goodman described the institute as “a destination meeting ground for people to work together and tackle the tough subjects.”

“All of the important work on complicated questions -- including wellness, nutrition, diet, obesity, heart diseases, many cancers related to diet -- all of these complicated issues absolutely require interdisciplinary work,” Goodman said.

Goodman noted university President Robert Barchi, a doctor, has said that half of healthcare spending could be avoided if people lived healthier lives.

The dean added that New Jersey taxpayers could look to the building as a product of the bond they approved.

“We now have a contract with the taxpayers of the state to use this building and solve really important problems that face the state and its residents,” he said.

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