A leader in research into children’s nutrition, health, and obesity prevention, she looks to expand the school’s offerings—and impact—as she assumes the permanent deanship
Christina Economos, an international leader in research into children’s nutrition, health, and obesity prevention, has been named the new dean of the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, the only graduate school of nutrition in the United States. A professor and holder of The New Balance Chair in Childhood Nutrition, Economos has been the school’s dean ad interim since last summer.
Her appointment builds on a distinguished career as a professor, mentor, administrator, and researcher. Economos earned her Ph.D. in 1996 from the Friedman School, where she co-founded and served as director of ChildObesity180, a nationally renowned research initiative. She is also a professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine.
“Chris’s leadership in food and nutrition research and policy and her commitment to Friedman’s mission make her a perfect fit to head the school,” said Caroline Genco, Tufts provost and senior vice president ad interim. “She has the strategic thinking and collaborative skills needed to guide Friedman in conducting research and training future leaders to make an impact.”
In a conversation with Tufts Now, Economos shared her aspirations for the school, how the distinctive Friedman approach helps tackle real-world problems, and why she carves out time to recharge.
Tufts Now: What opportunities would you like to pursue at Friedman as dean?
Christina Economos: At the Friedman School, our highly accomplished faculty conduct excellent research and we pride ourselves on training future leaders and having an impact on society. In order to continue building on those unique strengths, we're going to undertake an innovative growth and sustainability strategy for the school.
As the educational landscape has shifted to offering more flexible opportunities for students, we want to meet students where they are to make our academic opportunities more accessible, more current, and more inclusive. We are also committed to recruiting a body of students who are even more representative of the population—people with diverse backgrounds and lived experience—to go out and use their Friedman education to change the food system for the better. That's a lofty goal, but a critical one.
Along with that, we want to grow our research portfolio to be even more interdisciplinary and equity-minded. Tufts is the perfect place for deep collaboration between schools, institutes, centers, and public-private partnerships. If we continue growing our strengths, it will enable us to tackle the biggest food and nutrition-related issues we're facing as a society.
We are working to create evidence-based approaches to address climate change through innovations in sustainable and cellular agriculture. We are researching how to support human resiliency in the face of environmental and humanitarian crises through anticipatory action and preventing new pandemics. We can inform the best programs and policies to tackle hunger, malnutrition, and obesity by strengthening the “food is medicine” approach, and support our national nutrition programs like WIC, SNAP, school meals, and programs for older adults. We can’t do any of this alone, so it’s important to extend our reach at Tufts and into the world to find new perspectives, expertise, and experiences that bring us all together.
Can you say more about the role of research at Friedman?
We generate trusted science to produce real-world results. Our research is rigorously conducted, published in high-impact journals, and frequently consulted in policy and recommendation-making at local, state, federal, and international levels.
Research-to-policy is what the school was built on. Many of our faculty members have served on the national Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Most of our faculty serve on advisory boards, committees, and prestigious groups that are convened in Washington and by national and international organizations.
We have a seat at the table because the research that we conduct, papers that we publish, and the evidence we generate are considered in critical decisions that are made with respect to policy, funding, recommendations, and guidelines throughout society.
As dean, I want the Friedman School to further that role, using our research to inform food and nutrition policies, systems, and practices across the globe.
I also want to bring new partners to the school. Those include partners from every sector and community that can help us think through approaches that address existing societal challenges and understand where the research gaps are so we can align our research strategy to address those gaps.
What are some of the distinctive strengths of Friedman that you want to sustain?
It’s important that we have an interdisciplinary faculty; that we're not all nutrition scientists. We have a sort of think tank at the school, a constellation of experts who can approach problems from every angle. That's why I believe we're poised to launch even more interdisciplinary research and initiatives.
We're also distinctive because we conduct both domestic and international research, so we have true global impact. We train from bench to bedside, from community to society. Every student here gets a full understanding of the complex food and nutrition landscape and can explore the wide variety of careers that this knowledge can unlock for them—academia, industry, governments, NGOs, entrepreneurial endeavors. Our alumni are positioned everywhere.
You have extensive experience as a professor and administrator at Friedman, having previously served as division chair and as the dean for research strategy. What additional perspective did you gain from serving as interim dean that you will carry forward?
We all know that Tufts is a premier, student-centered, R1 research university with global impact. But when you're in a dean role, interacting with the leadership of the university, you gain a much deeper understanding of how to realize the vision that we have all set for the university.
Doing the strategic planning and visioning with other leaders at the university, you see how that comes together and what your role is in helping to advance that strategy. I am looking forward to helping the faculty, staff, and students at the school also understand that so that they remain energized and inspired to be part of the bigger vision of the university.
How would you describe Friedman students?
They are incredibly creative and dedicated to impact and social justice. Generally, they come to us after having some professional and life experiences that have shown them the need for global food system transformation.
They really want it done the right way. They're not interested in shortcuts. They're not interested in temporary fixes. They're interested in transformative solutions that prioritize diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. They're creative, collaborative, and not afraid to ask the big questions that can guide us all to a new way of thinking.
At Friedman, we help them understand what multi-sector, multi-system approaches are. When they leave, they're comfortable interacting with lots of different types of professionals and working together to make a difference on these big issues.
You’ve devoted your academic career to the Friedman School; you even earned your doctorate there. What does it mean to you personally to serve as dean?
I talked about that a little bit at Commencement this year. As the first alumna to serve in this role, I got choked up, looking out at our graduates and thinking, “Wow, that was me sitting there in the audience 27 years ago.”
What I said to them was: Try to develop and maintain a growth mindset throughout your career, because you're a scholar who is primed to keep learning. Find the right places to thrive. That’s what I’ve done. I have been able to accomplish a lot at Tufts, because this institution values engaged scholarship, experiential learning, civic engagement, and entrepreneurship. That’s kept me here.
I encouraged the Friedman graduates to nurture their whole selves and let their experiences and deep reflection guide their next steps. We’re counting on them to share their knowledge with others—from delivering individual nutritional counseling at the bedside, to making discoveries in the lab, to innovating in the private sector, to developing national and international food programs and policies. Their work—and the work of the school as a whole—will change lives and shape society for the better, and I’m honored to be part of their journey.
Is there something that you would like to share about yourself that many people might not know or expect?
I value and prioritize carving out time for deep personal reflection. That could be practicing yoga or meditation or taking long solo walks. That's a huge part of my continued growth.
I need that time to manage the complexity that's going on. Doing work that is fast paced, with lots of meetings, digesting information that's varied and involved on a daily basis, those moments of reflection are really important to me. I recharge when I’m alone and quiet. That's going to be a challenge, for me to continue to build that in.
The other thing I think not everyone knows is that I do work on the ground; I go to the places I do research. That’s meant going to the Mississippi Delta and spending time there, having breakfast with kids in neighborhood schools like in Compton, California, or visiting childcare centers in Cleveland, Ohio. I take a walk. I have a local meal. I meet friends and family members of other investigators or community members that I'm working with.
There are a couple of reasons why that’s important. One is you build relationships and trust. That's a large part of what leads to success, because it's human connection. Words on paper and evidence that we generate are implemented by people.
The other is that what you see and hear is very different than what you would get by reading about a particular place and looking at the census data. It's the observation. It's your own personal experience; you're seeing different things that are important that you wouldn't read online or that you might not even grasp in a conversation with someone. That experiential learning and the observations ground my research and create beautiful and unexpected moments.