Laboratory training enhances science literacy for Dietetics and Nutrition students

Often times, people think of a nutritionist or dietician when they want to change the way they eat to lose or gain weight, or as the result of a larger health issue. When studying dietetics and nutrition at a research university, students quickly learn that nutrition and dietetics is so much more than that.

Nutrition plays a key role in several diseases. Good nutrition in HIV infection can help maintain a healthy immune system and affects several organs, such as liver and heart.

“It is essential that we teach students to look beyond the day-to-day and learn to investigate the real potential effects that our diets have on our bodies and our health. That is why research is a part of our core curriculum. Research also teaches the students how interpret any nutrition-related news,” Mariana Baum, professor in the dietetics and nutrition department and head of the Nutrition Laboratory.

At Stempel College, students like doctoral candidate Jacqueline Boyer Hernandez have the opportunity to learn about how a person’s diet and how nutritional intake affects individuals with HIV infection, particularity as it relates to liver disease. As part of a multiyear National Institute on Drug Abuse/National Institutes of Health grant, the lab is able to have students assist in the research as part of their studies. The current funding mechanism allows the Miami Adult Studies on HIV (MASH) cohort to serve as a research platform for collaborative work in HIV and hepatitis C with Baum as the principal investigator. The six year study follows 1,500 participants at six months intervals for their health status, substance abuse and related behaviors, in the FIU Borinquen Research Clinic and in the FIU Nutrition Laboratory.

“Working in the lab has been one of the greatest experiences while studying,” said Hernandez. “Even though my background when I started was not specifically in biochemistry or lab techniques but my interest in learning those skills quickly made the difference. I am fascinated by the fact that I get to see something that most people do not get to see as we are the ones conducting the research.”

Hernandez is in charge of the oxidative stress experiments in the lab, which look at how the body handles an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the body’s ability to counteract their damaging effects with antioxidants.

“The beauty of working with this group is that we have a huge database and we are collecting the data,” said Hernandez. “We can put all the information together and say ‘now it makes sense’ because we can see the overall picture and individual cases. It is very unique working here because we have access to all the elements of the study and are able to analyze and make sense of the data.”

Doctoral candidate Colby Teeman was first attracted to the lab because of the high level research that is conducted there. In the lab, he analyzes total gluathione and oxidized glutathione as well as assisting with the sorting and shipping of samples that will be distributed to collaborators at Harvard, the University of Cincinnati, and the Case Western University for further analysis.

“My primary role in the lab is to process the daily blood samples that we get from our participants in our downtown clinic. The purpose of the blood processing is to be able to store plasma, serum, and peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) in our freezers for further, more specific analysis later on,” said Teeman. “I enjoy working in the lab because it gives you a greater appreciation for how research is performed and all of the hard work that goes into gathering so much data. Also, I really feel like working in a lab like ours is preparing me for my post-graduate school work setting.” 

Working in the lab allows Teeman to perform tasks and analyses that are to the benefit of both the lab but are also helping with his dissertation. The research that he is doing involves looking at different blood biomarkers that can be related to liver disease, looking at how various biomarkers of liver disease may be related to metabolic syndrome in people living with HIV.

“The students perform incredibly important tasks that will help us find new mechanisms of disease progression and ways to prevent it. In addition, these experiences will help the students to learn how rigorous research is conducted, so that when they graduate, they can plan, conduct and publish their own research experiments,” said Baum.  

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