If there’s one thing that can be said about nutrition sciences Assistant Professor Brandy-Joe Milliron, PhD
, it is that she is passionate about helping people. Her path to where she is today is an interesting and full of big experiences and a solid connection to nature. Milliron didn’t study nutrition at the University of Colorado at Boulder
— her undergraduate degree is in environmental, population and organismic biology. Even though she worked in health clinics and had an interest in humans, she was drawn to the complexity, biodiversity and sustainability of the eusocial ant
. By watching these social insects’ behaviors and understanding generational overlap, adult nest-building and brood care, she gained a unique perspective of human behavior, something that clearly influences her work today — especially her research around cancer diagnosis and healthy survivorship.
In high school Milliron thought a lot about global health and how she would take her desire to save the world to developing countries and open health clinics. She found herself doing exactly that — helping out in clinics in Kathmandu
and the mountainous Annapurna region
. At one point she observed nurse-led community education workshops delivered to women from the area. “It was funny. We were in the basement of a hospital and they were teaching these women how to plant herbs and vegetables on their rooftops,” shared Milliron. “And I thought, ‘Oh, I should study nutrition!’ Everyone has to eat and it’s a way we can reconnect with nature and a way to wellness. It’s holistic,” she added. So back to the United States she went to register for classes and ended up with a master’s degree in human nutrition.
This route took her, not down the registered dietician path, but the corporate wellness and health education one. The corporate world gave her an opportunity to work in the community instead of the clinic, a place in which she had little interest working, but she felt that she was missing something. As it had served Milliron well in the past as a compass of sorts, when she feels that way, she travels. “I just saved up, went to Mexico, studied Spanish and reconnected with what it is I wanted to do,” she confessed. While there, Milliron volunteered with NGOs working to educate farmers in planting alternatives to corn, and in this case, amaranth. It was more than teaching them how to plant this 6,000 year old domesticated grain, it was showing women how to create recipes using it instead of corn, and importantly, why they would benefit despite amaranth being more expensive and less drought-resistant. Being part of this excited her — she wanted to do more to help, but Milliron didn’t know how to write grants nor did she have a PhD. “I went back to the States a got a PhD at the same school with the same advisor (who I still love), but the program was physical activity, nutrition and wellness,” she acknowledged. She strengthened her foundation in assessment, intervention, development of physical activity, sleep and other wellness behaviors, and despite her background and wanting to study malnutrition, agricultural issues and global health, she focused on obesity management and prevention specifically on the impact of the built environment and social factors. “I understood that health is so much more than biology, so I used this protected time to explore that,” Milliron explained. “And this work positioned me to pursue a postdoc that focused on cancer survivorship, healthy survivorship and nutrition,” she added. Working at Wake Forest Comprehensive Cancer Center
, she was able to expand her focus to incorporate the health of caregivers and its impact on survivorship. She is continuing that work here at Drexel. While she teaches both Community Nutrition and Global Nutrition — her favorite areas — her research includes garden-based education with kids, global health and exploring the role of nutrition and wellness and healing behaviors of healthy cancer survivorship.
The opportunities Drexel has afforded her has allowed her to not only expand that area of interest to include how food-related beliefs, physical activity and preventive behaviors are affected in college-age children of parents with cancer diagnoses, but to also expand her approach to research. “Since I’ve been at Drexel, I’ve been able to start to understand mixed-methods approaches and hear people’s stories,” Milliron commented. “One of the studies that just started recruitment is at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge
. There’s a magical thing that happens with social support and connection. There’s a special bonding when they come together and share a meal and we have an opportunity to talk to caregivers and patients and collect data. We are trying to better understand beliefs that surround food, nutrition and discollectivity with the hope of developing interventions.” While her work isn’t specifically nutrient-focused, she scrutinizes dietary quality and diversity which she finds a much more balance approach and at the core of a healthy lifestyle.
To achieve that balance, it seems that much work has to be done to dispel myths around diets and to reacquaint people, especially in this country, with nature. Milliron, to that end, is partnering with organizations in a collaboration to deliver farm-based and cooking community education. The conversation doesn’t include nor is the goal weight loss. “This is about lifestyle and about learning to cook, to garden and interacting with nature,” she insisted. “We’re having to expose people to things like nature to make them less biophobic. This goes beyond living in an urban versus rural setting. It’s people who literally have never had access to green things and they are horrified of them,” Milliron pointed out. She loves garden-based education for this reason — because using nature and growing and even just playing or pruning is a way to reconnect with our environments and impact how we feed ourselves.
When asked about some of the biggest issues we face now in nutrition, she singles out fad diets. “Once we start latching on to extreme behaviors that are limiting in some way, our balance and maintenance of dietary quality and diversity goes out the door,” she noted. The general principles for a well-balanced meal seem simple: keep it primarily vegetable based and be selective of the meats and processed foods we are taking in. However, when it comes to lifestyle as part of healthy behaviors, there is much more to it than food selection. There is a whole social connection. “I hope the value is put back into food being part of something we share together,” she stressed. “I think it’s important to remember that growing and sharing our food is such a sacred thing and people are starting to explore how to restore that sacredness.”
What are Milliron’s plans for the future? A continuation of her current work here at Drexel and an ability to focus more energy on nature-based healing would be chief among them. “I want to be able to assess and evaluate the use of a variety of methods like brain imaging and other methods I haven’t even identified yet,” she stated. Regardless of it being used as an intervention tool for respite with cancer caregivers, as an opportunity for learning about nutrition and foods with kids or environmental stewardship Brandy-Joe Milliron’s contributions to nutrition sciences will be recognized as a deep connection to nature. Maybe she will produce and effectively communicate irrefutable evidence that if the choices we make regarding nature, food and social behavior favor cooperative care, society as a whole will be healthier and better equipped to navigate the complexities of life much like Milliron’s eusocial ants.
By Roberta S. Perry