ISU researcher awarded for work in cancer prevention


Photo courtesy of Diane Birt College of Human Sciences

Diane Birt was recently named a fellow by the American Society of Nutrition.

Vanessa Franklin

An ISU researcher will join an elite group of people when she gets inducted as a fellow by the American Society of Nutrition for her research in cancer prevention.

The American Society of Nutrition will induct Diane Birt, distinguished professor emeritus, along with nine other researchers from around the nation in Boston on March 30.

The society has been inducting a limited number of fellows each year since 1952. Birt will join a group of more than 400 other researchers to date.  

“The American Society for Nutrition is the premier professional organization for nutrition research and science,” said Ruth MacDonald, professor and chair of food science and human nutrition. “You have to have reached a certain point in your career, so this is for people who have a lifetime of work being recognized. You also have to have demonstrated the impact of the research that you’ve done.”

To be inducted as a fellow, which is the society’s top honor, researchers must be over the age of 65 and be nominated by colleagues.

“I actually would like to change [the age requirement] because I think it would be better for our professional society to identify our strongest scientists at a younger age,” Birt said. “That would then put you in better position for other types of awards.”

Donald Beitz, distinguished professor of animal science, nominated Birt for the honor. Beitz and Birt are the only two active American Society of Nutrition fellows currently at Iowa State. Beitz was inducted in 2006.

“I wanted to nominate her because she’s an internationally recognized scientist,” Beitz said. “Secondly, I like to promote Iowa State people. She is highly deserving of the recognition, so it was an easy nomination.”

Birt arrived at Iowa State in 1997 and served as chair of food science and human nutrition until 2004. Birt said she was the first person from her family to graduate from college, which was important to her as they placed great value in education.

Throughout her career, Birt has studied the impact of resistant starch in the prevention of colon cancer. She has also researched the benefits of herbal supplements, such as Echinacea, Hypericum and Prunella, and investigated the connection between inflammation and cancer.

Birt was also successful in leading a botanical research center on campus for about eight years.

“What’s really impressive about Dr. Birt was her continuous funding throughout her career, which is remarkable,” MacDonald said. “She always had funding for her work, which doesn’t happen all the time. You have to really show that you’re doing new things and progressing in your work and having an impact.”

Birt has been funded by the Department of Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, among many others throughout her career.

“You always have to be focused on not only what you’re doing now but what you’ll be doing in the future,” Birt said “It’s always about writing grants and finding the right collaborators. That’s one thing is that Iowa State is a great environment for me to be able to develop the right connections.”

Birt retired in January, but says she will retain her strong ties with Iowa State and continue her research, however, less time will be dedicated than in the past. She also continues to serve on committees and review manuscripts for the American Society of Nutrition

“I have always had a strong drive to reach high and do the best I can in whatever I’m approaching and take on challenges,” Birt said. “I think that probably helped me throughout my career.”

Birt said she hopes to see more ISU faculty be recognized as fellows.

“I’ve had tremendous students to work with Iowa State,” Birt said. “It’s the success of your students that makes you look good. I don’t see this as an award just for me, but also for Iowa State University.”

When Birt isn’t working, she can be found enjoying outdoor activities. Some of her passions include bicycling, kayaking and skiing.

Sustainability and conservation are also important to Birt, as she is the vice president of Outdoor Alliance of Story County.

“Diane has always been passionate about diversity and including people in what she does,” MacDonald said. “She’s been a leader in promoting diversity, women, minorities in science. She also likes to be doing things outside. I think she’s also been supportive of her students. She takes good care of them and makes sure they have good careers.”