(October 12, 1949-)
Food and nutrition scientist, and international authority, that researched cancer prevention though nutrition.
Diane Feickert Birt was born in Petaluma, a city in Sonoma County, California thirty-seven miles north of San Francisco. The daughter of Dorothy Beatrice Cunningham and Joseph Ernst Feickert, Diane received a BS in chemistry and home economics from Whittier College, Whittier, California in 1972, and in 1975 a PhD in nutrition from Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana.
With Purdue being a land-grant university, it is unsurprising that Birt continued her association with such institutions, in 1975 becoming assistant professor in human nutrition at Iowa State University (ISU). The next year she was appointed assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Eppley Institute for Research in Cancer in Omaha, settling in the city to accommodate her husband’s career transition. Elevated to associate professor in 1982, three years later she became associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s biochemistry department, serving both it and the Eppley Institute concurrently. In 1988 Birt was appointed professor in the medical center’s Eppley Institute, the biochemistry department, and the department of pharmaceutical sciences. In 1991 she became interim chairman and professor at the medical center’s department of biochemistry and molecular biology.
In 1997 she returned to ISU as director of the Center for Designing Foods to Improve Nutrition. That year, Birt began her tenure as chairman and professor of ISU’s department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. In 2002, she was appointed director of the university’s Center for Research on Botanical Dietary Supplements. Four years later, she became interim director of ISU’s Nutrition and Wellness Center, which that year merged with the Center for Designing Foods to Improve Nutrition. In 2004 she was elevated to Mary B. Welsh Distinguished Professor in Family and Consumer Sciences in the department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, serving both the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Human Science, becoming Distinguished Professor Emeritus upon retirement in 2015. A distinguished professorship is ISU’s highest academic honor.
Her research focused on several areas, notably the prevention of colon cancer through ingestion of resistant starches, a type of carbohydrate that functions like fiber. Many studies have demonstrated fiber’s dietary importance. Birt also investigated the bioactive and toxic agents in the plant genera Echinacea, Hypericum, and Prunella. Among her nutritional findings is the conclusion that people are more likely to lower their risk of developing some cancers by limiting calories rather than focusing solely on reducing fat consumption. Birt also demonstrated that the plant chemical apigenin protects people from ultraviolent light, thereby lowering the risk of contracting skin cancers. Fruits and vegetables are sources of apigenin. Additionally, Birt documented apigenin’s potential for reducing the risk of developing colon cancer by slowing cancer cell proliferation.
Pursuing these avenues of research, Birt published more than 130 refereed articles over a career spanning four decades. This work solidified her renown as an international authority on food and nutrition, a subject bedeviled by conflicting advice, dietary permutations, and controversies. Universities, disciplinary organizations, and corporations recognized her expertise by bestowing numerous awards and honors on Birt. All cannot be listed, but significant recognition includes the 2001 American Association for Cancer Research’s DeWitt Goodwin Memorial Lectureship, the 2005 ISU College of Agriculture Faculty Award for Diversity Enhancement, the 2006 Central States Society of Toxicology’s John Doull Award, the 2007 ISU College of Human Sciences Research Award, the 2012 American Society of Nutrition’s Mary Swartz Rose Senior Investigator Award, and the 2015 ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Award for Healthy Carb Team. That year the American Society for Nutrition named her a fellow, the most prestigious designation for a nutrition researcher. The society is the world’s premier nutritional organization. Since its founding in 1928 only about 400 scientists have received this distinction. In 2016 the National Academy of Science (NAS) appointed Birt to the Food and Nutrition Board within its Institute of Medicine. In this capacity, she helps set U.S. food and nutrition policy. That year the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) inducted Birt, an honor reserved for the most consequential health and medical researchers worldwide. Like the NAS appointment, induction into NAM involves Birt in policymaking, a role she played throughout her career. In addition to these honors and awards, Birt held a General Foods fellowship in 1974 and 1975, and in 2005 was an inaugural inductee into the Purdue University Foods and Nutrition Department’s Hall of Fame.
In the classroom Birt taught numerous courses, including those concerning food, nutrition, diet, health, research methods, toxicology, grant writing, cancers, microbiology, medical and nonmedical biochemistry, pathology, and pharmacology. Within the scientific community, Birt’s research generated funding from innumerable agencies. Prominent grants came from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the American Institute for Cancer Research, and the National Cancer Institute. State groups like the Iowa Soybean Promotion Board, the Nebraska Soybean Board, and the Nebraska Department of Health also funded Birt’s research.
Arthur, Tracy. 2006. “Interim Director Takes over Nutrition Center,” ISU Archives; Barton, Tom. 2004. “Professor Discusses Cancer Prevention,” Daily Online Edition, ISU Archives;
Brown, Meg. 2015. “Iowa State Professor Receives National Honor in Cancer Prevention,” http://www.hs.iastate.edu/news/2015/02/17/birt; “Diane Feickert Birt, Curriculum Vitae, January 2017,”
ISU Archives; “Iowa State Professor Appointed to Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board,” http://archive.news.iastate.edu/news/2006/aug/birt.shtml; “Iowa State Professor Receives Funding for Colon Cancer Study,”
ISU Archives; “Iowa State University Distinguished Professor Named to National Academy of Medicine,” http://www.news.iastate.edu/news/2015/10/19/birtnam;
Lewellan, Kate. 2004. “Three ISU Professors Earn ‘Distinguished’ Title from University,” Daily Online Edition, ISU Archives; “New Chair for Food Science and Human Nutrition at ISU,” ISU Archives.
Diane Birt Papers (1975-2015), RS 12/11/11, University Archives, Iowa State University Library.