Longtime Auburn professor, nutritionist honored for Excellence in Faculty Outreach

Published: Apr 20, 2017
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Barb Struempler didn't become a community nutritionist to be well known. It's certainly not what she dreamed about growing up in rural Nebraska.

"I don't think they even had nutritionists when I graduated from high school," said Struempler.

The citizens of Alabama can credit a series of fortunate events that led her to pursue a life devoted to improving their lives through nutrition education.

After receiving a bachelor's degree in nutrition from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and working in civil service in Germany, Struempler answered an ad back home in Nebraska seeking a community nutritionist to start a Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, program.

"I thought 'that must be for me.' No one else would have a degree in nutrition," she recalled. "That's how I got started and it's always been a true love."

For the past 33 years, Struempler has been a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Hospitality Management in the College of Human Sciences at Auburn University and a nutritionist and program leader for nutrition programs with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

She was recently honored as this year's recipient of the Auburn University Award for Excellence in Faculty Outreach.

Struempler recalled how she wanted to quit her pursuit of a master's degree because she wanted to make money like her friends. She attended Iowa State University on an assistantship and "was tired of being poor." But she said her parents, especially her father, insisted education "would put a lot of meals on my table."

"It indeed has put a lot of meals on that table," she said. "My parents were very instrumental in shaping my career."

Struempler stuck with it and earned a master's and doctorate at Iowa State. She's been in Auburn since 1984, tackling two major health problems plaguing Alabama: childhood obesity and infant mortality.

She has been successful in receiving grant funding–$133 million worth over 33 years–to support educational programs aimed at addressing these issues. This work embodies the essence of Extension: using the research generated by the nation's land-grant universities to achieve lasting, measurable and practical results.

Three years ago, Struempler secured a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, marking the first time its money came into a land-grant university. The grant has since been extended for an additional year.

"The CDC grant allows us to make environmental changes that support what we teach," she said. "If we teach that an apple is healthy for kids to eat, they've got that education. If, in rural Alabama, they can't walk down to the corner mart and find that fresh apple, what value is our direct education?

"The grant has allowed us to work with those stores and purchase certain things so they can have apples."

Struempler isn't the kind of teacher who stands in front of the classroom and lectures. Instead, she teaches community educators–80 in Alabama–who teach her programs to children and parents at sites throughout the state.

"All of my research and teaching is with Extension," she said. "Sharing it with everyone in the state makes it unique.

"The state of Alabama is my laboratory and my classroom."

Truthfully, she's hardly ever in a traditional classroom. When she is, she makes sure students know her by name, intentionally associating the 'b' in her iconic hair bun to 'b' in Barb.

"It's important for people if they are going to remember your name to associate it with something," Struempler explained. "If I want them to remember my first name is Barb, it's easy because I've got a bun."

"Everyone knows her everywhere we go," added Sondra Parmer, an Extension specialist, program coordinator and longtime friend of Struempler's.

Even though Parmer grew up in Auburn and has worked at Auburn University for 23 years alongside Struempler, she said Struempler "knows far more people in this town than I do. They always recognize Barb with the bun."

"Barb with the bun" is truly the queen 'B'ee. She makes sure an army of worker bees are well-trained in Extension nutrition programs in order to educate residents across Alabama.

Dominguez Hurry is one of the worker bees. As an agent assistant with Extension, he travels to elementary schools in Macon and Bullock counties and teaches third grade students about nutrition. He arrives with a mobile laboratory of iPads–one for each student–loaded with an app called Body Quest, a childhood obesity prevention program developed at Auburn.

"It's important to use technology since we live in a technological world," he said.

Hurry said he can tell students are learning the material because when he visits the school cafeteria, he sees students eating their fruits and vegetables. The students also tell him how much their family enjoyed one of the Body Quest recipes at home.

Struempler's work also addresses infant mortality by providing nutrition education to pregnant women. More than 30 educators take the curriculum for the program, Today's Mom, to almost half the counties in Alabama.

"The true winners with all this effort are the citizens of Alabama," she said.

And those citizens may never have a chance to thank the woman who changed their lives for the better.

"Oh but they do say thank you when I see the statistics change and hear testimonials from our educators," Struempler said. "No one's going to come and pat us on the back, but we know we are doing a good job."

In many ways, Struempler is a winner, too. She's amassed more than 50 community education awards in her career.

"For the years I've known her, she has provided very strong leadership to implement programs for people who are difficult to reach," said Parmer. "That leadership has led to great personal success for her. You can look at all her numerous awards and publications and realize you don't reach that pinnacle without strong leadership and vision."

Parmer called Struempler's receipt of the Auburn University Award for Excellence in Faculty Outreach "well deserved."

"Her compassion for others, that generous spirit, the fact that she goes out and really looks to reach people who need us the most make her deserving of this award," she said.

Struempler admitted the Auburn award means the most, but it's certainly not what really matters or what drives her.

"I love what I do. That's my motivation. I'm more excited to come to work today than I've ever been in my life. And I think what a blessing that is," she said. "How many people can say that?

"It's truly the most exciting time in my career so I can't leave, not yet. There's a lot of work, a lot of effort going into this state to make it healthier."

This year alone, Struempler is the primary investigator on $9 million in external funding directed toward obesity prevention in Alabama.

"I've got to stay and see how it finishes."