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Alumni Look Back

Q&A with Laurie Sims, Ph.D., M.P.H.


Q: Penn State has been intertwined with your life story. How has the University shaped your development, professionally and beyond?

A: My undergraduate experiences at Penn State prepared me well for my academic career.  I am proud of earning the Edith Pitt Chace Award my senior year, graduating “with highest distinction,” and serving as the Marshall for my graduating class. Graduation day in May 1965 was scorching hot in the stadium, and those black robes just absorbed the intense heat. Dr. George Barron, the department head at the time, stepped in to help me carry the heavy (for me) college flag. 

I went on to earn the M.P.H. (Master of Public Health) degree from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in nutrition, with specialization in social and behavioral sciences, at Michigan State University. Fast forward 11 years—I became an assistant professor of nutrition at Penn State!  I remember being so nervous when giving my interview talk. All I could think of was the title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again.  But I can say now that not only did I “go home” to Penn State, I also thrived there.

Q: Who were your influential mentors at Penn State?

A: My undergraduate advisers were kind, thoughtful professionals who saw promise and potential in a transfer student from a small college.  When I realized that I had “what it took” to be a successful student at Penn State, my whole world changed.  My perspectives and my goals expanded.  I credit these individuals’ support with my future success.

As a new faculty member, I was fortunate to have outstanding colleagues, including Dr. Helen Guthrie, who influenced my scholarly pursuits in positive ways – assistance, encouragement, collaboration.  Their efforts will not be forgotten. 

Q: What does the NDAS Outstanding Alumni Award mean to you?

A: I am deeply honored to receive the Outstanding Alumni Award for 2021.  When I reviewed the list of previous recipients, I found the names of friends and colleagueseven former students whose work I greatly admire. These persons include Chris Lewis Taylor, Rachel Johnson, Idamarie LaQuatra, Sandy Schickler, Greg Miller.  To be in the company of these individuals is humbling.  I hope I have brought as much recognition to Penn State’s nutrition program as these honored colleagues have done.

Q:What accomplishments are you most proud of?

A: My family is my greatest accomplishment! My husband of 55 years, Dr. Henry (“Hank”) Sims, Jr. and I have three extraordinary children—Jonathan, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Babson College; Amy Sanyahumbi, M.D., Texas Children’s Hospital/ Baylor College of Medicine; and Andrew, CPA, Deloitte Audit Division. I treasure the lasting, meaningful friendships and productive collaborations I made with graduate students and colleagues while at Penn State. I am also proud of my research record and the fact that I was among the first to apply social science methodologies to better understand food-related behavior. Serving as editor of the Journal of Nutrition Education with the goal of assisting researchers to publish their work and establishing the office for the journal’s publication at Penn State with Dr. Barbara Shannon are also activities of which I am quite proud.

Q: You’ve written a book tracing your father’s experiences in military service.  How did this project come about and what were some of the extraordinary things you learned?

A: After my retirement, I began taking classes and attending workshops in creative writing.  In 2016, my son, Jonathan, and I traveled to Italy to retrace the route my father took as an infantryman in World War II; he was killed in action there when I was an infant. Through interactions with local Italians and the help of recent technology, we were able to find the exact places where my father was killed and temporarily buried before his remains were repatriated in our Pennsylvania hometown.  From these experiences, I wrote a book, One Daughter’s Quest: Following My Father’s Bootprints in Italy during World War II, that was published last year and is currently available in both print and Kindle versions through Amazon. I am very proud of that endeavor and feel that it brought me even closer to my family’s roots.

Q: Looking back, is there any advice you would give to your college-aged self?

A: My advice would be to take advantage of the opportunities you are given. Embrace challenges and learn from them.  Most of all, think of surprises and setbacks as opportunities, not obstacles – embrace and enjoy life!