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In the Footsteps of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: A Career in Nutritional Sciences Research

The striking characteristics of the nutritional sciences are its long and colorful history, its broad scope and complexity, its ability to integrate with other scientific disciplines, and the excellent opportunities it offers for a scientific career.

Its long history includes the first written nutritional research study — reported in the Book of the Prophet Daniel, in the Bible. In Chapter 1, Daniel and his companions, captives of King Nebuchadnezzar, disdain the food and wine they are offered from the royal table and request a diet of vegetables and water. After a 10-day “clinical trial,” they look healthier and better fed than the “control” group eating from the royal table. As a reward, the King admits the group into his service.

The broad scope of the nutritional sciences is well documented by the information provided by the more than 160 graduate programs
offering advanced degrees in the field. Nutritional sciences encompass
all aspects of an organism’s interaction with food, and can be
investigated at levels ranging from molecules to populations.


Nutritional science draws upon biochemical, biological, epidemiological,
and social science to answer key questions regarding the complex
relationships among nutrition, health, and disease. According to the Cornell Division of Nutritional Sciences,
“Understanding these relationships includes the study of the metabolic
regulation, biochemistry, and function of nutrients, nutrient
requirements throughout the life span, the role of diet in reducing risk
of chronic disease, the nutritional quality of foods, and interventions
and policies designed to promote the nutritional health of individuals,
communities, and populations.”

Not surprisingly, departments of nutritional sciences draw their
faculties from a broad range of backgrounds including not just nutrition
and dietetics but also genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry,
physiology, psychology, immunology, endocrinology, epidemiology, health
promotion, health education, human and veterinary medicine,
neuroscience, and pharmacology.

Equally impressive is the scope
of career opportunities open to majors in nutritional sciences. On their
career services Web site, Rutgers offers this sampling of occupations pursued by majors in nutritional sciences, as well as the type of employers that hire them.

Occupations

•    Athletic Counselor
•    Brewery Process Supervisor
•    Caterer
•    Chef
•    Community Agency Worker
•    Consulting Dietitian
•    Consumer Advocate
•    Cooperative Extension Agent
•    Food and Drug Inspector
•    Food Buyer
•    Food Distributor
•    Food Scientist
•    Food Technologist
•    Health Educator
•    Home Economist
•    Hospital Dietitian
•    Nurse
•    Nutrition Journalist
•    Nutritionist
•    Peace Corps Worker
•    Pharmaceutical Sales Rep.
•    Physician
•    Public Health Administrator
•    Quality Control Manager
•    Registered Dietitian
•    Research Dietitian
•    Restaurant Manager
•    Sales Representative
•    Teacher/Professor
•    Technical Writer
•    Therapist
•    Weight Reduction Specialist

Employers

Private and Nonprofit Organizations

•    Athletic Clubs
•    Breweries
•    Colleges and Universities
•    Cooking Schools
•    Food Distributors
•    Food Manufacturers
•    Food Services
•    Freezing Plants
•    Health Clubs
•    Health Maintenance Organizations
•    Hospitals/Health Clinics
•    Magazines/Newspapers
•    Nursing Homes/Retirement Communities
•    Pharmaceutical Companies
•    Private Practice Offices
•    Publishers
•    Research Laboratories
•    Resorts/Hotels
•    Restaurants/Cafeterias
•    School Systems

Government Agencies
        
•    Consumer Affairs Departments
•    County Extension Services
•    Department of Corrections
•    Departments of Health
•    Head Start
•    Peace Corps
•    School Lunch Programs
•    Senior Citizen Nutrition Projects
•    US Department of Agriculture
•    US Food Drug Administration
•    US Public Health Service
•    WIC (Women Infants Children) Program

Rutgers also lists the positions held by alumni:

•    Faculty in university nutrition departments
•    Physicians and nurses in medical and nursing schools
•    Scientists in the food industry
•    Research positions in the pharmaceutical industry

It is frequently pointed out that government economists anticipate job growth for nutritional scientists to be faster than the average for all careers through 2018.

In
the world of physician-scientists that I live in, nutritional
scientists play a particularly important role within research programs
in gastroenterology, endocrinology, oncology, nephrology, pediatrics,
cardiovascular disease, neurobiology, and vision research. In general,
investigators in these areas combine training in nutritional science
with public health, epidemiology, and biochemistry as a basis for their
research activities.

To learn more about this “subspecies” of nutritional scientists, I sat down with Julie Mares,
a nutritional epidemiologist who, among her other appointments at the
University of Wisconsin, is a professor of ophthalmology and a member of
the UW Eye Research Institute.
Julie has made numerous significant contributions to our knowledge
regarding the relationship of diet and nutrition to eye disease and the
maintenance of healthy eyes.

Julie began our discussion by
pointing out that in the 21st century, nutritional research has evolved
beyond the classic nutrition studies of the 20th century. In those
earlier years, mainstream nutritional research was concerned with
identifying the essential nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins,
and carbohydrates) needed to sustain life, growth, and reproduction.
This work targeted the needs of large groups of people rather than
individuals. Much of the impetus came from meeting the needs of soldiers
and civilian populations during times of war and, later, on keeping
hospitalized patients alive. There was relatively little understanding
of the broader components of food itself, such as the biochemistry of
hundreds of bioactive plant chemicals (phytochemicals) or how food
affects cell populations in the G.I. tract.

To be successful in
the type of research she does, Mares recommends solid grounding in
nutrition, biochemistry, and epidemiology. Although one can take many
educational routes, she suggests getting a B.S. in nutrition and an M.S.
in biochemistry, or a B.S. in biochemistry and a M.S. in nutrition,
then adding a Ph.D. in epidemiology. At a small college, the first
degree would have to be a B.S. in biochemistry. In a large university
with a nutritional science major, students would have a choice of where
to begin. Julie notes that people who enter science careers in nutrition
are often passionate about food and its affects on health and,
increasingly, show passion for the challenges of growing food
sustainably. This often develops into a strong desire to better
understand the science of nutrition and the implications for the health
of people and the environments in which they live.

Relatively new
and exciting disciplines within the nutritional sciences are public
health, clinical nutrition, and genetics. The nutritional sciences
graduate program at UW-Madison accepts 12 new students each year. There
are larger graduate programs at some universities, including those at
Tufts, Cornell, and the University of California-Davis. These programs
are supported by government funding, particularly from the Department of
Agriculture, and also by the food industry. Julie estimates that about
half of the UW graduates enter industry.

Julie sees the pulling
together of disciplines as one of the major attractions of being an
investigator in nutritional science. On the other hand, the need to
develop “relationships with funding areas” and alter one’s research
direction as funding opportunities change can be a difficulty. She
enjoys the challenge of “keeping up in different worlds” and integrating
new information from several fields, and she loves the collaborative
opportunities. But she notes that the nutritionist-biochemist doesn’t
often enjoy the scientific limelight of mainstream biochemists, nor does
the nutritionist-geneticist often stand with the elite in genetics.

Yet
to physicians and physician-scientists, the research nutritionist is
indispensable. The contributions they make are of great importance,
particularly in preventative medicine. The beginnings of nutritional
science may date to biblical times, but its future looks bright.