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Nutrition professor recognized for research, teaching

Better Choices, Better Health workshop
Better Choices, Better Health workshop participants and facilitators display materials about managing their chronic conditions.

South Dakotans are adopting healthier lifestyles and improving their ability to manage chronic conditions, such as heart disease or depression, thanks to assistant professor Lacey McCormack’s commitment to research and teaching. Her work in the Department of Health and Nutritional Sciences has earned her statewide and university recognition.

In March, McCormack received the 2018 April Brooks Woman of Distinction Faculty Award, which recognizes her contributions to teaching and research.  In 2016, McCormack, who has secured $1.2 million in funding as either principal investigator or co-PI, was named outstanding researcher for the College of Education and Human Sciences.

McCormack also recently became director of the South Dakota State University Didactic Program in Dietetics. Three years ago, the South Dakota Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recognized McCormack as the state’s Young Dietitian of the Year.

Improving the health of South Dakotans

Lacey McCormack
Lacey McCormack

McCormack is co-principal investigator on the research project that made the Better Choices, Better Health® workshop, a free chronic disease self-management program, available to South Dakotans in person or online.

The South Dakota Department of Health estimates that one-third of the state’s adults have more than one chronic condition. A chronic condition is defined as lasting three months or longer, often limiting normal activities, according to the National Health Council.

“A lot of times we get stuck and being able to problem-solve can help us take control and break the symptom cycle,” explained McCormack, whose research focuses on rural health. The S.D. DOH estimates the annual cost of treating these chronic diseases will reach $2.7 billion by 2023. This evidence-based program developed at Stanford University has been shown to reduce doctor and emergency room visits, as well as hospital stays.

More than 100 in-person workshops have been held in 30 counties since October 2014. Nearly 75 percent of those attending are more than 60 years old and nearly half are limited in some way by their condition. The most common conditions among participants are arthritis, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, depression, diabetes and lung disease.

The project was funded through an $800,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through the Administration for Community Living and the Administration on Aging and ongoing support from SDSU Extension, the South Dakota Department of Health and the South Dakota Department of Human Services.

The federal funding helped McCormack and principal investigator Suzanne Stluka, SDSU Extension food and families program director, build the infrastructure necessary to make the statewide program sustainable.

Since 2014, more than 800 South Dakotans have participated in at least one Better Choices, Better Health® workshop session, according to McCormack, who manages data collection and analysis for the grant. The workshop series consists of six weekly 2.5-hour sessions. Those taking the workshop online can log in multiple times during the week to complete each training session. The researchers recently surpassed their goal of 588 completers, with 600 participants completing four of six workshop sessions.

Empowering student learning

McCormack’s success in research also fuels her teaching. This year she was teaching a hybrid interprofessional obesity prevention class that covers developing a grant idea and proposal. “I am able to share examples from all stages of the grant-writing process. I know what I’m talking about and the students can see that,” she said.

McCormack also teaches an online graduate public health nutrition course. Students beyond SDSU can take the class which is also part of the online Master of Public Health and open to students enrolled in the Great Plains Interactive Distance Education Alliance master’s program in dietetics.

Graduate student Deborah Rumrill of Pierre, who took McCormack’s online public health nutrition class, said, “She comes across as very passionate, not only about her field of expertise but also about learning. She has a very adept way of creating a community of learners.”

After completing the course, Rumrill chose McCormack as her research adviser. “She empowers students to learn—she’s a tremendous role model,” added Rumrill, who completed her MPH in August 2017.

In addition to her expertise as a dietitian and nutrition researcher, McCormack brings her experience as the parent of a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old to the classroom. “I’m not just teaching the material; I’ve lived it and now I’m helping my students apply it,” she said.

“I really appreciate her use of real-world experiences to keep us engaged,” explained Jenna Christianson, a junior dietetics major from Hendricks, Minnesota, who took McCormack’s nutrition through the lifecycles class.

She recalled how Cormack recounted her experiences with her daughters in discussing how to transition babies from breast milk to solids. “She is a very passionate teacher,” Christianson said.