For a university professor, a question often results in research. For Dr. Heather (Cook) Gibbs ’99, that curiosity also helped her conduct ground-breaking research and earn her Ph.D. degree in dietetics from the University of Illinois, one of the country's most respected programs.
“I wanted to know what knowledge people rely on to make their eating choices, three to five times each day,” she says. “Before prescribing an eating plan, a dietitian needs to know what understanding and skill level a person has.”
That’s where the results of Heather’s research, using four different studies related to nutrition literacy, comes in.
She developed and tested her original way of measuring nutrition literacy called the Nutrition Literacy Assessment Instrument (NLAI). Although health literacy has recently become a national priority within health care, prior to the NLAI, there were no tools specific to nutrition literacy.
As she shared her research with other registered dietitians at professional conferences, she received enthusiastic, positive responses. “It’s nice to know that my research is important to other professionals in the field,” she says.
Contributing her knowledge
Publishing her research results is another aspect of the Ph.D. process for Heather. Her dissertation, “Nutrition Literacy: Foundations and Development of an Instrument for Assessment,” is now in print and online.
Her article, “Exploring nutrition literacy: Attention to assessment and the skills clients need,” recently appeared in Health. Another article, "A Review of Health Literacy and Its Relationship to Nutrition Education," is in the October/December 2012 issue of Topics in Clinical Nutrition.
“I learned writing from my dad, a former newspaper reporter and editor,” she says. “He taught me about the economy of language, saying the most with the fewest words.”
Prioritizing life and love
Family continues to be Heather’s top priority. She and her husband, Andrew Gibbs, an English professor and coach of Tiger men’s and women’s tennis teams for Olivet, are the parents of three daughters.
“By God’s grace, I was able to keep all aspects of my life going while I completed my Ph.D. degree,” she says. “I chose to say yes to the most important things: my family, work and school. But that required me to say no to many other good things.” She recalls times of bouncing a baby on her knee while writing her dissertation on her laptop, and tucking little girls into bed before devoting more hours to her research.
“This wasn’t just about reaching a goal,” she continues. “I want my daughters — Emelia, Audra and Eleanor — to believe they can be ‘anything God wants them to be,’ as the children’s song goes.”
Following Heather’s Ph.D. graduation ceremony in Urbana-Champaign, Ill., Emelia wore the tam (cap) all the way home in the car. Later, when visiting Heather’s ONU office, Audra noticed that Heather had a new name plate on her door.
Heather dedicated her dissertation to her three daughters: “May you grow up to be women of integrity, compassion and strength.” These are the three characteristics she hopes to display to them as she continues her work of mothering and career.
“Audra told me one day: ‘Some are good at teaching, some are good at singing. But I’m good at science, and I’m going to be a scientist!’ I told her: ‘Yes, Audra, I believe you are.’”