Inside the mind of researcher Stephanie Grutzmacher

Stephanie Grutzmacher, Ph.D.

Stephanie Grutzmacher joined the College of Public Health and Human Sciences as an assistant professor of nutrition, global health in Sept. 2015. In her current role, she focuses on food security, nutrition literacy and the development and evaluation of family, school and community-based nutrition education programs for low-income populations. Stephanie holds undergraduate degrees in Psychology and Communication & Rhetoric from Syracuse University; and an MS and PhD in Family Studies from University of Maryland.

What made you decide to get into this field of study? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?

“I’ve been broadly interested in poverty and inequality issues for most of my life. I started graduate school with the intention of doing intervention program design to promote resilience among children whose parents have mental health challenges. I began working with University of Maryland’s Extension and field faculty through my assistantship, which helped me build a toolbox for applied research and outreach. The projects I worked on addressed many different topics in which I had an interest, including fathering, food security, mental health, childcare accreditation, rural community engagement and family policy. I came to shape my path by simply walking through open doors.

To make ends meet, I worked an extra job with the SNAP-Ed program doing administrative tasks. After a few weeks of assembling curricula, I began analyzing their evaluation data and the rest just clicked. My career pursuing food equity flowed from this early investment with my future colleagues. They gave me support and space to innovate, test out my ideas and develop new skills. Together, we substantially grew our programmatic reach, scope and impact with low-income communities. I spent 13 years working with them in different capacities – first as an hourly student, then as a graduate assistant, an evaluator and finally a collaborator.”

What does your current research entail?

“My research seeks to examine how we can best design and deliver community-based programs to address food access, dietary quality and food security issues in vulnerable communities. In order to do this, I often conduct strengths and needs assessments, design and pilot test programs, design and conduct program evaluations, and provide capacity-building services to professionals and community change agents. My work focuses largely on engagement and implementation processes, which allows me to work in a variety of settings and populations.”

What sparked your interest in this topic?

“I’m really motivated to find creative and innovative responses to health challenges. Part of this search requires a deeper understanding of why the challenge exists, how it came to exist and how people experience it. And part of it requires a willingness to noodle with conventions to develop new strategies, even if we sometimes come up empty handed. These discoveries help us make some progress and work more agilely to address pervasive, interconnected and complicated problems around health and poverty. I also care deeply that people can access their most basic needs and can do so with dignity and self-determination.”

How will your work make a difference?

“First, it matters that we listen to and understand people’s experiences. In the body of knowledge about food security, we know a lot about how many people experience food insecurity, who is at risk, the negative outcomes associated with food insecurity and what strategies they may use to cope. We know relatively little about how the experiences (and thus the risk factors, outcomes, coping strategies, etc.) differ among subpopulations based on age, geography, rurality, social network, residential segregation, occupation, immigration status, acculturation and family structure. It is exactly these experiences that would help us design better food assistance programs and policies.

Second, it matters that we build community capacity to design and manage programmatic and policy responses to food equity challenges. Challenges related to public health and inequality are enormously difficult; we can only make progress by working in large coalitions and expanding our coalitions with as many change agents as we can find. Moreover, this outcome ensures that strategies for improving food equity are built on a foundation of people’s experiences and perspectives and emphasize dignity and self-determination.”

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

“The best advice I heard for getting started in a career was, “Say yes.” In other words, pursue opportunities that present themselves, get a seat at the table and work diligently. Eventually, people come to know and respect your ideas and can count on your strengths and contributions.

Inelegantly, this best advice is also some of the worst advice in terms of fostering focus and balance. While I may not ever fully recover from overcommitting, I often think of the many yeses that have shaped who I am, what I do and the relationships and collaborations I value. It often takes years for us to understand the ways in which our opportunities and experiences inform and transform us, and they’re usually worth a little frazzle.”

What advice would you give to current students and recent alums?

“Find a great mentor, be a great mentor and cultivate relationships. Put people first in your work –­ students, colleagues, collaborators and communities. Their success is your success; and your success is their success. Through great relationships, the rest will probably sort itself out.”

What are your favorite activities outside of work?

“I love traveling, nature photography, music, playing/coaching team sports, volunteering at summer camp and eating vegan foods that other people make. I am also a certified crazy dog lady and will snuggle or selfie with any animal I come across.”