Friedman School dean Mozaffarian wins Walker Prize

Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition and winner of the 2018 Walker Prize, poses for a portrait. Courtesy Dariush Mozaffarian

Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and Jean Mayer professor of nutrition and medicine, was awarded the Walker Prize at the Boston Museum of Science on Sept. 24 for his work in the fields of nutrition and obesity.

The Walker Prize was established in 1864 by William Johnson Walker, a 19th century surgeon and patron of science from Boston. The prize has been awarded annually by the museum since 1967 to recognize a scientist for exemplary research in any field and for their ability to communicate that work to the public via the written word, according to the museum’s website.

Mozaffarian joins the ranks of past Walker Prize recipients which include four Nobel Laureates and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Mozaffarian is, however, the first recipient from Tufts, according to the Museum of Science.

In a press release, the Museum of Science specifically cited Mozaffarian’s work linking eating habits to chronic diseases, obesity and mortality in populations and his role as an advisor to the United Nations, World Health Organization and the U.S. government, among others, as reasons why he merited the award.

“We are honored to recognize Dariush Mozaffarian with this year’s 2018 Walker Prize for his critical research and public advocacy in making nutrition and the business of how we eat at the forefront of public conversation,” Ioannis Miaoulis, president and director of the Museum of Science, said in the press release. “Dr. Mozaffarian’s research has contributed significantly to our understanding of nutrition science and nutrition policy and has helped us to see the impact food systems have on our health, our environment, and on our economy.”

Reflecting these themes, Mozaffarian gave a lecture called “The Future of Food and Nutrition: Implications for Science, Dietary Guidelines, and Food Policy” at the presentation of the award held at the Museum of Science on Sept. 24.

“[I am] gratified by the focus of the Prize on not just generation of science, but also communication and translation of this science: a major priority for both me and the Friedman School,” Mozaffarian told the Daily in an email.

According to Renata Micha, associate research professor at the Friedman School, Mozaffarian’s expansive work can be classed into three main branches: research on fatty acids and biomarkers’ links to disease; attribution of mortality to poor diet and analysis of nutrition-related public health policies. Micha has worked with Mozaffarian for over a decade, starting when Mozaffarian was her postdoctoral mentor at Harvard.

As part of his research on the effects of diet, Mozaffarian was a leader on a study in connection with the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) project, which investigated causal links between bad eating habits and death at the global, regional and country levels, Micha said.

Mozaffarian added that this research led to his creating the Global Dietary Database, which continues his previous work on the GBD project by pooling reliable data on individual-level dietary intake in one place to enhance research efforts on nutrition worldwide.

Micha credits Mozaffarian with revolutionizing the field of nutrition science.

“Up until that point, nobody had looked into this,” she said. “Nobody had pulled together expertise and resources to assess diet … on a global scale and determine what burden on health is attributable to poor diet worldwide.”

On the policy side, Mozaffarian has also spearheaded the creation of the Food Policy Review and Intervention Cost-Effectiveness initiative that brings together researchers to assess policy options to fight nutrition-linked public health problems.

“Key findings have included the large health and cost benefits of a government-led program to reduce sodium, tax sugary beverages, subsidize fruits, vegetables and other healthful foods through medical prescriptions, the SNAP program or national subsidies,” Mozaffarian said.

Mozaffarian stressed the need to translate these findings for people who can use it.

Micha lauded Mozaffarian in this respect.

“He’s among the very few people I have met who can communicate the results of their science that well to any given audience,” she said. “That is a unique skill that very few people possess.”

Mozaffarian said that the Walker Prize is not a capstone, but just another starting point in his professional career.

“I strongly encourage anyone interested in food and nutrition to pursue this passion. Our food system is among the great global challenges, and opportunities, of our time,” he said.

Update: This article has been updated to clarify that Dariush Mozaffarian is the first Walker Prize recipient from Tufts, according to the Museum of Science’s record dating back to 1967.