Affiliate Profile: Valerie Duffy

Valerie Duffy, PhD is a registered dietitian, Professor, and Director of the Graduate Program in Health Promotion Sciences, the Department of Allied Health Sciences. “My position is split into research, teaching and public service,” she explains. Duffy is an expert in food science, nutrition, health promotion and public health nutrition. Her research interests include understanding the influence of variation in chemosensory perception of food flavor, food preference, consumption and promoting healthy diets and weights in children and their families, particularly those in disadvantaged communities. “We want to provide good nutrition for individuals in order to promote general health, healthy behaviors, food security and eventually prevent childhood obesity,” says Duffy.

Duffy began her academic career at Cornell University, where she earned her Bachelor of Science in Nutrition. She then went on to complete a Generalist Dietetic Internship at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center. Upon completion of her undergraduate education, Duffy continued her schooling at Rush University, where she attained a Master of Science in Clinical Nutrition. Since then Duffy has been at UConn for 29 years, during which she received a Certificate in Gerontology and a PhD in Nutritional Sciences. Duffy became interested in nutrition because it is such a multidisciplinary field. She says, “It is a combination of science, math and food, which are three disciplines that I have always loved.”

One current project that Duffy is working on with an interdisciplinary team is the Healthy Family Connecticut initiative. Healthy Family Connecticut aims to work with stakeholders both in the school setting and in the community to promote healthy behaviors in students. Duffy explains that the first phase of the program is an online “behavioral screening,” which is an online survey that asks children what they like and do not like to eat. Based on their answers, each student receives a private tailored message that aims to motivate a healthier behavior or provide reinforcement for healthy behaviors to what they eating and physical activities. Middle school children reported that doing the survey got them to think about their behaviors and the messages were helpful. In response to the online tailored message, nearly all children reported that they would like to work on at least one message target behavior. The results of this survey were used to engage the middle schoolers to create their own messages to address the struggles between food insecurity and food waste at school. “From that information, we have promoted school nutrition programs, such as providing healthier options for lunch and student designed messages that get students thinking before they toss certain foods out.”

Involvement with CSCH
Duffy joined CSCH because she recognizes the importance of working with experts in other fields in order to advance her own research. “The only way that you are going to be effective in the school setting is by understanding what is required of schools, experts in education, experts in physical education, experts in school health and all of the requisite documentation and policy involved,” she explains. Duffy also mentions the importance of collaboration and working together to promote child health. She says, “With everything else that has to go into developing a healthy child in the WSCC framework, we have to work as a team to be effective.”

Fun Facts
Duffy is not only passionate about science but is also an avid musician. “I almost became a professional flute player, and I still regularly play” says Duffy.

Undergraduate Researcher Daniel Schwartzman interviewed Dr. Duffy and wrote this profile.