Agnes Higgins award, maternal-fetal nutrition

Established in 1980, the March of Dimes Agnes Higgins Award honors the late Agnes Higgins of the Montreal Diet Dispensary for her innovation and years of service to the cause of improved maternal nutrition. A pioneer in devising methods of nutritional assessment and counseling, Mrs. Higgins greatly advanced the understanding of eating healthy as a crucial factor in healthy pregnancy and prevention of low birthweight. The Agnes Higgins Award is presented in recognition of distinguished achievement in research, education or clinical services in the field of maternal-fetal nutrition.

Nomination criteria

Candidates for the Agnes Higgins Award must have:

  • Been widely involved in maternal-fetal nutrition through teaching, research and/or clinical practice for at least five years
  • Shown a demonstrable effect in raising the quality of maternal-fetal nutritional care through scholarly pursuits, research, education and/or practice
  • Demonstrated ability to apply maternal-fetal nutritional standards of practice and/or facilitate their implementation by others


Note: Each statement below was written at the time the award was announced.

2021: Nancy Krebs, MD, MS

Dr. Nancy Krebs serves as the Head of the Division of Nutrition and Associate Vice Chair of Academic Affairs in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. She received her Doctor of Medicine from the University of Colorado, and is board certified in General Pediatrics, Clinical Nutrition and Pediatric Gastroenterology. Her research has ranged from detailed metabolic studies of trace mineral metabolism across the life cycle to large scale nutrition randomized control trials. The intention of these studies has been to define dietary zinc requirements and to characterize homeostasis, including metabolic regulation and adaptation to different physiologic states in the average infant, specifically those who are breastfed, as well as pregnant and lactating women.

2020: Michael Georgieff, MD

Dr. Michael Georgieff is the Martin Lenz Harrison Land Grant Chair in Pediatrics, Professor of Pediatrics, Obstetrics/Gynecology and Child Psychology, the Executive Vice Chair of the Department of Pediatrics, the Director of the Center for Neurobehavioral Development at the Medical School and co-Director of the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain, at University of Minnesota. He received the award for pivotal research linking iron deficiency early in life and long-term mental health. In particular, Dr. Georgieff’s uncovered basic mechanisms by which iron deficiency in children younger than age three can lead to long-term neurological deficits, even if they receive a diagnosis and treatment for iron deficiency anemia.

2019: Chittaranjan S. Yajnik, MD

Dr. Yajnik serves as the Director of the Diabetes Unit at the King Edward Memorial Hospital Research Centre in Pune, India, and an Adjunct Professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research. Dr. Yajnik’s research in India led to the discovery of the 'thin-fat' characteristic (high body fat-low BMI) that increases a populations’ risk of diabetes. Further research showed a fetus acquires this characteristic when growing in a mother’s womb. An imbalance in maternal micronutrients (low vitamin B12 but adequate folate) affects fetal metabolism and contributes to this ‘thin-fat’ effect and maternal diabetes exaggerates it. This work has been influential in shaping nutritional guidelines for children, adolescents and pregnant moms internationally and growing recognition that investments in youth health can lead to long-term multi-generational benefits.

2019: Caroline Fall, MBChB, DM

Dr. Fall serves as the Professor of International Pediatric Epidemiology in the Department of Medicine at the University of Southampton, where she is also an Honorary Consultant in Child Health and a member of the Pediatric Diabetes Team. Dr. Fall’s research has changed the way we think about maternal nutrition and metabolism during critical periods of fetal development that can have short- and long-term impact. She discovered that in utero exposure to maternal malnutrition and maternal diabetes predispose the infant to low birthweight, poor infant weight gain and rapid weight gain in childhood and adolescence, and also leads to long-term metabolic impact, including a higher risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease in their adult life. She has pioneered the evaluation of pre-conception maternal nutritional interventions for long-term benefit in the child.

2018: Kent Thornburg, PhD

Dr. Thornburg is the M. Lowell Edwards Chair of Cardiovascular Research at Oregon Health & Science University’s Knight Cardiovascular Institute, a Professor of Medicine at the OHSU School of Medicine, and Director of both the OHSU Bob and Charlee Moore Institute for Nutrition & Wellness and OHSU Center for Developmental Health in the Knight Cardiovascular Institute. For 30 years, he has studied the outcomes of epigenetics, and has made significant discoveries on the function of the placenta, nutrient transport, embryonic and fetal growth, and risk of disease. Dr. Thornburg’s research has helped bring the “Barker hypothesis” – the idea that many adult onset diseases arise from stresses during pregnancy and development, like malnutrition – from a controversial theory to the scientific mainstream. He  has shown that the consequences of poor growth during development or being born too soon can be passed on for generations from a person’s parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents, which is why he also calls it the “100-year effect.” Dr. Thornburg is an international leader in raising maternal-fetal nutritional standards to improve the health of moms and babies, and serves as editor of several international journals focused on reproductive health and medicine. 

2016: Michael L. Dunn, PhD, CFS

Dr. Dunn is Professor of Food Science at Brigham Young University, recently completing an 8-year term as Chair of the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Science. Dr. Dunn’s research at Brigham Young has focused primarily on micronutrient fortification, especially in small-scale manufacturing facilities, and micronutrient stability during food processing and storage. He has focused particularly on folic acid stability during fortification and processing of fresh corn masa and corn masa flour. This work led to FDA approval of corn masa folic acid fortification which will have a significant impact on the rate of neural tube defects among births to Hispanic women.

2015: Christine M. Olson, PhD, RD

Dr. Olson is Professor of Community Nutrition in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University where she conducts research and extension-outreach programs focused on the nutritional concerns of women and children. Her recently awarded National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute project focuses on understanding how to slow the accumulation of weight in childbearing women by developing, implementing, and evaluating two electronically-mediated (web-based) behavioral interventions: one in pregnancy and the other in postpartum. Dr. Olson also completed a major extension-outreach project, Healthy Start Partnership, focused on building the capacity of community-based health and nutrition professionals to design and implement environmental interventions promoting healthy weights in women and their infants.  

2014: Mary L. Hediger, PhD

Dr. Mary Hediger, recently retired Senior Research Advisor for the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), devoted her entire career to maternal-fetal nutrition, focusing on prenatal factors influencing fetal growth and child health. During the first decade of her career she worked as a member of interdisciplinary teams evaluating the effects of biologic immaturity on pregnancy outcomes, a pioneer in the life course approach to human health. Her later work included analysis of twin pregnancies which led to the publication of important research demonstrating how the patterns of growth for the fetal twin pair were highly associated with very preterm delivery. While at NICHD, her expertise in maternal nutrition and children’s health positioned her as a lead Investigator for the nutritional and anthropometric components on numerous studies, including the NICHD Fetal Growth Studies which will develop new standards for fetal growth for four racial/ethnic groups in the United States. 

2013: Gary M. Shaw, DrPH

Dr. Gary Shaw, a perinatal epidemiologist and expert in birth defects, is Professor and Associate Chair of Clinical Research at Stanford University Medical School. Dr. Shaw has led many major studies that have expanded and refined knowledge about folate and neural tube defects (NTDs), as well as discovering relationships of other aspects of maternal nutritional status with NTDs. Many of his inquiries have extended beyond NTDs to include birth defects such as oral clefts, heart and limb anomalies and hypospadias. His cutting-edge consideration of gene-environment interactions as mechanisms for understanding the causes of birth defects is essential for effective screening and prevention. Dr. Shaw’s more than 300 published studies have also made groundbreaking contributions to knowledge about how other maternal lifestyle, and occupational, environmental and medical exposures contribute to both birth defects and other adverse fetal outcomes such as preterm birth and bronchopulmonary dysplasia.

2012: Kathleen M. Rasmussen, ScD, RD

Dr. Kathleen Rasmussen is Professor of Nutrition in the Division of Nutritional Sciences and International Professor of Nutritional Science at Cornell University and is internationally known for her research on maternal and child nutrition. She and her students have established that interventions to improve maternal nutritional status can increase the volume and improve the composition of human milk and, thereby, improve infant nutritional status. They have also shown that women who are overweight or obese at conception have problems establishing and maintaining breastfeeding and have babies who are heavier at one year of age than those of normal-weight women. Professor Rasmussen has been a member of several expert committees at the Institute of Medicine. She was most recently the chair of the Committee on Reexamination of IOM Pregnancy Weight Guidelines and is currently chair of a committee charged with disseminating these guidelines. 

2011: Patrick M. Catalano, MD

Dr. Catalano’s research has focused on nutrition and metabolic conditions before and during pregnancy and how those conditions affect a fetus’ growth and how much body fat it gains. His research has shown that such infants born to obese mothers and mothers who have diabetes are heavier at birth and have a higher risk of developing metabolic disorders, including insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.

Dr. Catalano and his team discovered that the body fat content of a baby is a strong indicator of poor or malnutrition during pregnancy. They also showed that babies of obese mothers are more likely to have fetal macrosomia, also knows a “big baby syndrome,” a common problem among babies of pregnant diabetic women. At present, Dr. Catalano’s research is focused on the effects of omega-3 fish oil supplementation on maternal-fetal inflammation and potential to affect fetal obesity.

2010: David Barker, MD, PhD, FRS

Dr. Barker is Professor of Clinical Epidemiology, University of Southampton, UK, and Professor, Department of Cardiovascular Medicine, Oregon Health and Science University. Dr. Barker’s research focuses on how a baby’s nutrition and growth in the womb determines its health in adult life. Studies by his MRC Unit showed that people who had a low birth weight or were stunted at birth are at increased risk of coronary heart disease and related disorders, such as hypertension, diabetes and stroke. This led to the ‘fetal origins hypothesis’ which proposes that coronary heart disease originates through responses to under nutrition during fetal life and infancy, which permanently change the body’s structure, physiology and metabolism. The discovery that coronary heart disease originates in utero points to the importance of protecting the nutrition and health of women, before and during pregnancy, and protecting young children as part of the strategy to prevent chronic disease in later life.

2009: Gail G. Harrison, PhD, MNS

Dr. Harrison is Professor, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), School of Public Health, Director, UCLA Center for Global and Immigrant Health, and Senior Research Scientist, UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, her work proved that maternal obesity affects fetal growth. In 1983, Dr. Harrison led a study in Egypt that demonstrated how healthy a pregnant woman eats influences the development and health of her baby and the nutrient composition of her breast milk. As a member of an Institute of Medicine committee, Dr. Harrison conducted research that showed low-income pregnant women are more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables if they receive specific food subsidies. That led to the committee’s recommendation that fresh fruit and vegetable vouchers be distributed as part of the U.S. government’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program, which provides federal grants to states for food, health care referrals, and nutrition education. 

2008: Susan E. Carlson, PhD

Dr. Carlson is the A. J. Rice Professor of Nutrition and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Kansas Medical Center. She is also Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Dr. Carlson is internationally recognized for her work in maternal-fetal nutrition and specifically for her research on DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid. Dr. Carlson was the first to recognize and note the implications that human milk-fed infants had higher amounts of circulating DHA than formula-fed infants. In 2002, she was awarded honorary membership in the American Dietetic Association for her pioneering work leading to the recognition that DHA was a conditionally essential nutrient for infants. She has been involved nationally and internationally in evaluating the quality of evidence and establishing best-practice guidelines for intake of DHA by infants and pregnant women.

2007: Anna Maria Siega-Riz, PhD, RD

Dr. Siega-Riz is Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina, School of Public Health. She has a joint appointment in the Department of Nutrition and is a fellow of the Carolina Population Center. She serves as the Director of the Nutrition Epidemiology Division and the Nutrition Epidemiology Core of the Clinical Nutrition Research Center. Dr. Siega-Riz's research interests include maternal nutritional status and its relationship to birth outcomes, gestational weight gain and obesity development, eating methodology, reproductive epidemiology, and trends in eating among minority populations. She is a co-investigator on the Pregnancy, Infection, and Nutrition Study, a large prospective epidemiological study examining the role of infection, stress, physical activity, and nutrition on preterm births among women receiving prenatal care from public institutions. 

2006: William W. Hay, Jr., MD

Dr. Hay is Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Vice-President/President-Elect of the American Pediatric Society. He is widely recognized as one of the country's most distinguished academic pediatricians and a strong mentor of young scientists. Dr. Hay's career in nutrition research has spanned 34 years. His scientific interests include fetal and neonatal nutrition, intrauterine fetal growth, and fetal growth restriction, all of which have relevance to the fetal origins of adult diseases. Dr. Hay is recognized internationally for his contributions to the understanding of fetal glucose and amino acid deprivation. He is the author of numerous landmark books and papers that are required reading for many pediatricians in training across the United States. 

2005: Barbara Luke, ScD, MPH, RD

Dr. Luke is Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, with joint appointments in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Dr. Luke is internationally known for her work on improving outcomes in multiple pregnancies through enhanced prenatal care and patient education, including targeted weight gain recommendations and healthy eating therapy. She is the founder of the University Consortium on Multiple Births, a collaborative group of researchers around the country who pool their maternal and neonatal data to evaluate factors affecting outcomes. Her latest book, When You're Expecting Twins, Triplets, Quads, co-authored with Tamara Eberlein, won the Outstanding Book of the Year award in 2000 from the American Society for Journalists and Authors.

2004: Barbara Abrams, DrPH, RD

Dr. Abrams is Professor of Epidemiology, Public Health Nutrition and Maternal and Child Health at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health where she also currently serves as Associate Dean of Student Affairs. After more than a decade of experience providing nutrition counseling and education directly to expectant mothers in prenatal clinical care settings, she turned her attention to conducting research studies to better understand how maternal weight and weight gain before, during and after pregnancy contribute to health outcomes in newborn infants and their mothers. She is most proud of her work educating future leaders in the field of maternal nutrition and public health.

2003: Lois Jovanovic, MD

Dr. Jovanovic is Director and Chief Scientific Officer at Sansum Medical Research Institute in Santa Barbara, CA and Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Dr. Jovanovic is an internationally recognized expert in the nutritional management of gestational diabetes. She has made significant contributions in medical nutrition therapy of gestational diabetes, specifically in high-risk Hispanic-American women. Her goals are to provide pregnant women and clinicians with tools and methods for successful management of gestational diabetes and to reduce the numbers of macrosomic and malformed newborns born to diabetic women.

2002: Theresa O. Scholl, PhD, MPH

Dr. Scholl is Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey School of Medicine. For almost 20 years, Dr. Scholl has studied the relationship between nutrition and health outcomes in adolescent pregnancy. Specifically, her research has focused on effects of continued adolescent maternal growth during pregnancy; the impairment of maternal growth on nutrient transfer between mother and fetus, resulting in increased risk of low birthweight babies; improved pregnancy outcomes following material intake of zinc, folate and multivitamins; the association of pre-pregnancy weight, prenatal weight gain and anemia with growth and preterm deliveries; and the possible adverse effects of oxidative damage to fetal DNA through dietary exposure.

Other recipients:

Lynn B. Bailey, PhD
Kathryn G. Dewey, PhD
Mary Frances Picciano, PhD
David M. Paige, MD, MPH
Godfrey P. Oakley, Jr., MD, MPH, and Paul B. Pencharz, MB, ChB, PhD, FRCP(C)
Paul B. Pencharz, MD, ChB, PhD, FRCP(C)
Frederick C. Battaglia, MD
M. Elizabeth Brannon, MS, RD
Judith E. Brown, PhD, MPH, RD
Mary Egan, MS, MPH
Norbert Freinkel, MD
Howard N. Jacobson, MD
Janet C. King, PhD, RD
William McGanity, MD
Charlotte G. Neumann, MD, MPH
Roy M. Pitkin, MD
Pedro Rosso, MD
Reginald C. Tsang, MD
Myron Winick, MD
Bonnie Worthington-Roberts, PhD