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Intelligent Machines

Ellen Smith Kurtz, PhD '86

High-flying nutritionist works for women and children

As an executive at a pharmaceutical company, Ellen Smith Kurtz makes life better for women and babies around the world. For fun, she flies her family’s airplane. “You always need to find your own balance,” she says. “No one will do it for you!”

Through high school and college, Kurtz balanced an affinity for chemistry classes and a desire to help others. She volunteered to help rebuild a West Virginia coal-mining town after a flood. Later she went to East Africa and worked in a maternal and pediatric clinic and interned for Unicef at the United Nations in New York. She attended Mount Holyoke College because, at that time, its alumnae earned more PhDs in the physical sciences and engineering than women from any other college. She did her graduate work in nutritional biochemistry and metabolism at MIT because Course XX included Professor Nevin Scrimshaw’s class in international nutrition policy. “I knew I wanted to do a graduate degree, but I wanted to make sure it was something meaningful and interesting from a science perspective,” she says.

This story is part of the May/June 2011 Issue of the MIT News Magazine
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As the senior director of medical affairs and communication for the nutrition business unit at Pfizer, she oversees medical researchers working on products such as baby formula and supplements for infants, young children, and pregnant women consumed in more than 60 countries. She has published in peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals and has presented at international medical meetings. Through her earlier work at Hoechst-Roussel Pharmaceuticals and Johnson and Johnson, she holds patents for treatments of skin disorders and related drug-delivery methods.

Her doctoral work at MIT, Kurtz says, provided the fuel for her success. “There’s the incredible state-of-the-art breakthrough science, but coupling that with other aspects, like international economics and food policy courses, made it a very rich experience,” she says. “MIT gave me a toolbox for understanding basic research and translating it into applications that are valuable for both health-care providers and patients or consumers. That’s something you don’t get at every institution.”

Outside of work, Kurtz lets her adventurous side take over. “It’s very important not only to be active in your mind but keep your body active as well,” she says. She and her family fly their plane on vacations to New Hampshire and the Bahamas and pilot their 50-foot boat to Annapolis. They canoe and kayak for miles along the Delaware River and cross-country ski and ride bikes along the canals near her home in picturesque Lambertville, New Jersey. Kurtz is also a trained volunteer advocate for domestic-violence victims. She has served as a vice president of the MIT Club of Princeton, New Jersey, and believes that all alumni should get involved with a local chapter, especially in the current job climate. “Utilize and expand your contacts!” she says. “The diversity of talent is amazing.”

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