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The best laid plans lead to incredible career

Suzanne Nielsen grew up on a farm in central Nebraska, where she started her education in a one-room schoolhouse with an inspiring teacher. “Mrs. Betty Kind was the first of many great teachers who influenced my career path and my teaching style,” Nielsen says. “One of my earliest childhood memories is lining up my dolls on a sofa and teaching them like I was being taught.”

She encountered other inspiring teachers in math, chemistry and music. As influential as they were, however, Nielsen’s mother most inspired and motivated her.

“Sometimes we emulate what we see,” she says. “My mom was a strong person. She drove trucks during harvest. She was the first woman school bus driver in our area. She always encouraged me in anything I wanted to do.”

Starting with those days of playing teacher and throughout her academic career in food science in Purdue’s College of Agriculture, Nielsen says she never thought there was anything she couldn’t or shouldn’t do.

On her first day of class at the University of Nebraska, which she attended on a home economics education scholarship, the professor told the students that there would not be enough jobs for all of them. Nielsen immediately began the search for another career path that pulled together what she most loved: science and teaching. Food science was that junction.

Nielsen also met her husband Bob Nielsen, professor of agronomy at Purdue, at Nebraska.

“I went to Poland on a 4-H exchange program and lived there for six months,” she says. “When I came back we decided if we could get accepted to the same grad school, we could get married.”

They completed masters and doctoral degrees at the University of Minnesota, and then took positions at Purdue. The rest is Nielsen history, including their daughter Kirsti and son Eric.

Nielsen came to Purdue as a postdoctoral fellow in biochemistry before being among the first faculty members hired for the new food science department by Philip Nelson, its first department head. Nelson, who won the World Food Prize for developing technologies for large-scale aseptic packaging that revolutionized the food industry, greatly influenced Nielsen’s career.

A group shot of the first food science department faculty members A group shot of the first food science department faculty members

“Phil Nelson assigned me to teach food analysis,” she recalls. “As it turns out, that teaching assignment had a huge impact on my career. There wasn’t a student-friendly book available on this subject. It’s a long story, but after teaching this class for about five years, I got talked into editing a food analysis textbook. Now, five editions later, I thank the many other food analysis instructors across the U.S. and beyond who collaborated with me by serving as chapter authors to make that book possible, and my former students who helped me learn how to teach!” Nielsen says.

Nielsen’s work in food analysis and her research in food protein chemistry are career distinctions. She speaks proudly about bringing in enough external funding to support her research program and the 36 graduate students who studied with her. She describes her part in training those students as one of the best outcomes in her career. In 1997, she became the first woman in the college to receive the annual Agricultural Research Award.

Nielsen reluctantly decided to give up up her research program when she succeeded Nelson as food science department head. She spent a decade in the role.

“I felt strongly about helping to further improve the quality of the department that Phil Nelson had built over the previous 20 years,” she says. “He had focused heavily on building our undergraduate program in food science, so one focus of mine was on strengthening our graduate program — increasing the quality, quantity and diversity. I also focused on professional development for both undergraduate and graduate students beyond just the classroom. I hired 13 faculty members and helped them start their programs at Purdue. With the hard work of the entire faculty, we doubled the external research dollars per faculty member.”

Purdue Food Science first three department heads
Purdue Food Sciences’ first three department heads, in reverse order,
from left to right, Brian Farkas, Suzanne Nielsen and Philip Nelson.

Nielsen believes she and Nelson brought different skills to the department’s leadership: “Phil was a big picture person. I was the detail person.”

Nelson’s perspective comes from working with Nielsen in different roles, he says. “I have known Suzanne for a very long time, first as a colleague; next, as her department head; and finally, as my department head. I counted on her many times to lead the way, and she did. She leaves an envious legacy. Purdue is a better place because Suzanne was here.”

Nelson highlights what he considers one of Suzanne’s greatest strengths. “As an outstanding teacher and mentor, she was loved by her students because to Suzanne, students came first.”

“I had the opportunity to be one of Dr. Nielsen’s students about 18 years ago. She inspired me and made a true difference in my life.”

- Senay Simsek, current department head and dean’s chair in food science

Nielsen’s passion for teaching has been rewarded many times. In 2018, the provost honored Nielsen as a master teacher, naming her a 150th Anniversary Professor. The award culminated years of recognition including the Charles B. Murphy Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching, Helen B. Schleman Gold Medallion and College of Agriculture Richard L. Kohls Outstanding Teaching Award. She was also a 10-time awardee of the Food Science Department Teaching Award. In 2017, Nielsen received the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Excellence in College and University Teaching Award for Food and Agricultural Sciences.

As the awards suggest, Nielsen profoundly values her experiences with students. “It has been so exciting to see students learn, grow and develop as you help prepare them for their future career path, whether in the food industry, academia or something completely different,” she says. “I’m inspired every time I hear back from a former student about how useful the knowledge from my class was during a summer internship. I’m encouraged when I hear from a former student that they pull the food analysis textbook I edit off their shelf at work to help them make decisions and solve problems.”

Karen Plaut, Glenn W. Sample Dean of Agriculture, praises Nielsen’s commitment to teaching. “Suzanne was a wonderful researcher, but her goal was always to make sure students were learning as much as possible and receiving a great education,” Plaut says. “As head, she always pushed faculty to provide the highest quality of experiences for students, and she hired new faculty not only on their research ability but also on their commitment to teaching.”

Nielsen in a lab coat with others (Photo by Tom Campbell) (Photo by Tom Campbell)

If Chapter 1 of Nielsen’s career was as a new faculty member building a research program and growing as a teacher, and Chapter 2 her work as department head, Chapter 3 was her international engagement. After stepping down as department head, Nielsen was deputy director for USAID’s Feed the Future Food Processing Innovation Laboratory and an Office of Corporate and Global Partnerships Faculty Fellow.          

She also continued to support the program she had started with the Zamorano Pan-American Agricultural School. After working with colleagues to help the Honduran university build a food science program in the late 1990s, Nielsen started bringing Zamorano students to her lab to work on research for an international development project.

As department head, she created an internship program in which the department and faculty split the cost of hiring the Zamorano interns. Many of these interns returned to Purdue as food science graduate students. Nielsen’s husband was so impressed with the students the couple assisted during their stays that he helped create a similar program, administered by Purdue’s International Programs in Agriculture, which now brings five interns every year to other departments in the Purdue’s College of Agriculture.

Purdue Provost and former dean of the College of Agriculture Jay Akridge pays tribute to Nielsen’s extensive contributions. “Suzanne is a brilliant teacher and passionate leader, with an unwavering focus on the success of others. Having the privilege to work with her while she was department head, I saw first-hand her tireless work to deepen industry relations, expand and enhance the department’s international footprint, lift up the accomplishments of faculty and staff, and support the success and placement of food science students. Her later work as a faculty fellow gave her a forum to lead and support our university’s global initiatives. Suzanne made a real difference for our university.”

Nielsen had been beginning to plan her retirement when she learned in 2019 that she had breast cancer. She underwent surgery and treatment, but she learned in early 2021 that the cancer had returned and spread. Although it is inoperable and incurable, she is on a treatment protocol and anticipates others will follow. Receiving this news made her decision to retire now easy, she says. “I’m very satisfied with the outcomes of my past work, but I’m looking forward to having no work obligations. I want to focus on more time with my family, and do some other things I want to do, such as visit some national parks and take care of myself.”

Nielsen appreciates this time to reflect. She talks proudly of her children and her role in helping them become adults with happy, fulfilling and productive lives. “It’s really important to me that as a faculty member and then as department head that I feel my children received the attention and help they needed from me and that I didn’t ‘shortchange’ them.”

Nielsen expresses the same sentiment when talking about her contributions as a teacher. “I’m proud of my former students and the role I played in their lives. I’m also proud of helping other faculty in the U.S. and around the world who teach food analysis and the students they teach.”

This is not how Nielsen envisioned this time in her life, but as she has throughout her career, she is approaching it with determination and a plan. She plans to enjoy every moment of her daughter’s wedding in December. Her son was married in a small ceremony last summer, and she plans to attend a reception he and his wife are planning for next summer.

Nielsen’s family at her son’s summer wedding. From left to right, Bob and Suzanne Nielsen, Eric Nielsen and his wife, and Kirsti Nielsen and her fiancée. Nielsen’s family at her son’s summer wedding. From left to right, Bob and Suzanne Nielsen, Eric Nielsen and his wife, and Kirsti Nielsen and her fiancée.

She would have liked to return to the food science building for a retirement reception, but staying healthy for her children’s wedding celebrations takes precedence. So, instead, she will celebrate virtually with current and past colleagues and students.

This semester Suzanne Nielsen ends her career at Purdue, far from that one-room schoolhouse and the row of dolls she taught in her family’s home. She has made a difference in her department, the university and in places around the world. And, as much as it both surprises and gratifies her, she retires knowing that for thousands of students, she is their inspiring teacher.

As she prepares to retire, Nielsen knows from experience that her departure presents an opportunity for the department to raise funds. For anyone wishing to honor her, Nielsen offers two suggestions. One option is the Zamorano Student Internship Endowment in Food Science she created to support the Zamorano interns. Another option is the Suzanne Nielsen Food Science Student Support Endowment Fund that donor Robert Scholle’s gift funded. Online gifts can be made at: connect.purdue.edu/honorsuzannenielsen.

Nielsen’s retirement celebration will be held on Friday, December 3 from 4 to 5 p.m. Eastern Time via Zoom. Please contact foodsci@purdue.edu for link and details.

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