Professor Isobel Contento
By Michelle Armstrong
After almost 30 years, Professor Isobel Contento's work at the College is still going strong. A faculty member in the Department of Health and Behavior Studies, Dr. Contento is coordinator of the TC's program in nutrition. Successfully tying her scholarly interests to the nation's schools, she has created programs that encourage youth to think critically about the food and dietary choices they make. "For me," says Dr. Contento, "training in nutrition education is a very important task." The daughter of missionaries, Dr. Contento's early years were spent in Singapore before she attended the University of Edinburgh where she studied microbiology. After earning her B.S., she began Ph.D. coursework at the University of California, Berkeley in the same discipline. The free-speech movement in which Berkeley played a pivotal role inspired Dr. Contento to teach in a student-centered environment once she completed her graduate program. She taught at Johnston College for Individualized Learning, a "1960s-type experimental college" that was part of California's University of Redlands and emphasized individual learning and interdisciplinary studies. There she found her students wanted to learn more about nutrition, so she modified her curriculum to match their interests. "Student requests were very important there," she recalls. Her articles about nutrition caught the attention of Dr. Joan Gussow who was then chairperson of TC's nutrition education program. After a seven-year stint at Johnston, she accepted an invitation to join the College faculty. Dr. Contento relocated to New York City "in the middle of a snowstorm," she laughs, where she has lived and taught since 1977.
Her first courses at TC focused primarily on nutrition, but eventually evolved into nutrition education and the behavioral aspects of nutrition. "Nutrition science is important for healthy diets," she says, "but if you can't get people to eat healthy diets, nutrition science won't matter as much." Dr. Contento has worked over the years to apply theory to practice through her work in K-12 schools. One project with which she has been involved is Earth Friends, a grant-funded, after school initiative for elementary school children that examines food and nutrition issues in relation to the food system and health. Founded by Joan Gussow, the project aims to help students become individuals who make food choices that are friendly to the Earth as well as good for their bodies. According to Dr. Contento, a primary objective of the program is understanding "food choices have consequences for the ecological environment as well as for our bodies." She collaborates on this project with David Russo, a TC alumnus who acts as its director.
Dr. Contento wanted to expand her work with children to "do something more extensive and in greater depth in schools." That prompted her to partner with TC's Dr. Angela Calabrese-Barton for their Linking Food & the Environment (LiFE) initiative funded through the Science Education Partnership Award of the National Institutes of Health. The program's three modules--growing food, from farm to table and beyond, and food and health--are currently in the publication process. The LiFE curriculum, taught in science education classes, has been disseminated in five cities across the U.S. and has reached more than 30 schools representative of over 6,000 students. LiFE received funding for implementation in elementary schools for two three-year periods, and the program will now be federally funded for the next five years for implementation in middle schools. This will enable the TC professors to develop a fourth module of their curriculum, this time focusing on overweight prevention by helping students understand the relationship between biology, the environment, and personal behavior and use scientific inquiry skills to become "competent navigators" of the food system who eat a more healthful diet.
While she is on sabbatical, Dr. Contento is working on a textbook for college seniors and graduate students enrolled in nutrition programs with an anticipated publication date in 2006. Although she is away from the College during this period, she remains linked to TC and its mission. "I like that TC is committed to making a difference in the world. I like the intellectual climate and the informality among faculty, the friendly interactions and the intellectual challenge. All of the faculty in my program is very enthusiastic and committed. I love what I'm doing. I love the courses I'm teaching, I love the students, and I love the research." When thinking of her days at Berkeley and Johnston and her time at TC, Dr. Contento sees a strong connection between her past and her present. "TC is one of the places where there is still very student-centered learning. I have a lot in common with that, and that's why I've never left."