Student Profile: Jennifer Taylor
Master’s degree, Nutrition and Food Systems
- By Daniel Joseph Harvey
UVM Graduate Student Jennifer Taylor, a member of the Nutrition and Food Systems Master's degree program, recently won first place in the Nutritional Epidemiology graduate student poster competition at the national conference for the American Society of Nutrition, held in Boston from April 20 to 24.
The title of the poster was "The development of a valid measure of school children's fruit and vegetable consumption," and Jennifer's co-authors were Dr. Bethany Yon, a Research Associate in the Nutrition and Food Sciences department, and Dr. Rachel Johnson, who is Jennifer's advisor.
IMPACT publisher Dan Harvey recently caught up with Jennifer (who received her Master's degree in May) to find out more about this outstanding student and her research:
IMPACT: Jennifer, congratulations on winning the poster competition in Boston -- it must have been very exciting. Tell us a little about where you are from and how you got interested in this field.
JT: I am originally from Raymond, New Hampshire, and I completed my B.S. at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vermont. My degree was in Wellness and Alternative Medicine. I was initially interested in this program because I wanted to learn more about health promotion. I originally expected to train as a health practitioner, such as a naturopathic doctor or chiropractor. However, through the courses I took as an undergrad and in attending a few national conferences, I found I was increasingly drawn towards a career that was more public health oriented. I wanted to understand more about what drives our health care choices, and this eventually led to my interest in studying nutrition in graduate school.
IMPACT: What inspired you to go to graduate school at UVM?
JT: I actually took two years off between completing my undergraduate degree and beginning my Master's at UVM. In that time, I continued to think about what kinds of careers would allow me to understand what drives people's healthy and unhealthy lifestyle choices through a public health and community-based lens. I knew I wanted to explore more of the barriers and facilitators to developing healthier habits, especially as I worked as an assistant in a Traditional Chinese Medicine clinic in Charlottesville, Virginia. During my experience at this clinic, I increasingly understood how difficult it can be to change health behaviors -- regardless of the quality of the health advice or effectiveness of a treatment -- when patients are not prepared or equipped to take action. I specifically wanted to study nutrition because food is an integral part of our daily lives and an accessible leverage point for improving health.
In the time before I started graduate school, I was also becoming increasingly interested in understanding how people connect with food. I worked for a nursery called Edible Landscaping that specializes in fruit tree sales and volunteered with an afterschool garden program. At the nursery, I had the chance to introduce customers to fruits they had never tried before. I was enthused by how positively people responded to trying new, nutritious foods at the nursery, and was curious to learn more about how similar experiences in school-based programs might encourage children to try nutritious foods and ultimately develop life-long, healthy dietary behaviors.
Ultimately, I wanted to go to UVM because I was intrigued by research in the Nutrition and Food Sciences department on child nutrition and food systems. I wanted to work with Dr. Rachel Johnson because she has immense experience in childhood nutrition as well as nutrition policy. I think it is very important to promote healthy behaviors from an early age, and to do so by working with the individual as well as their food environment. Working with Dr. Johnson was a great way to explore the role of the school food environment and school nutrition policy.
IMPACT: Tell us about your experiences in grad school -- what is it like to work with faculty members as well as do your own research?
JT: My experience as a Master's student has been extremely rewarding and stimulating. I have kept very busy from the first weeks I came to UVM with my research project on dietary assessment. During my first year, I trained a team of 19 undergraduate students in the dietary assessment methods we would compare in school cafeterias, and I managed our team as we made over a dozen school visits. My research process began with an in-depth review of the literature on dietary assessments that shaped our research team training. When I worked with our undergraduate research team, I had the chance to develop and present training material, facilitate group discussions, and plan and delegate team members' responsibilities during our school visits. One of the most valuable components of conducting my thesis research project was getting out into the field -- which in my case was the school cafeteria -- so that I could see what school lunch looks like today, see what children are eating, and meet the food service staff that operate the school meal programs.
Throughout every stage of the research process, I have worked closely with my advisor. Dr. Johnson is very supportive and approachable, which made it easy to discuss the progress of the project and ask questions. Working with faculty as a graduate student is quite different than it typically is at the undergraduate level; in many senses Dr. Johnson treated me as a peer researcher rather than a student. I enjoyed taking ownership of a research project and finding answers to my own questions, while knowing that I had great mentors available to guide me.
I have been involved in research throughout my Master's program. Even as I wrapped up my own thesis project, I have continued to work with Dr. Johnson as well as other members of our lab to develop and address other research questions. Being involved in the continuous cycle of the research process has been especially valuable to me because it has allowed me to get a better sense of what a career in research would look like. My experience as a Master's student has helped me see how much I truly enjoy research and is the reason I plan to pursue a PhD in nutrition and eventually a career where I'm involved in research.
IMPACT: Jennifer, were you on an assistantship of any kind during your time as a graduate student at UVM?
JT: I was -- I received an assistantship through the department of Nutrition and Food Sciences. My time was divided between responsibilities as a Research Assistant and as a Teaching Assistant. As an RA, my responsibilities were related to school nutrition projects, and as a TA, I assisted the department's Sports Nutrition course, which is an upper-level undergraduate course taught by Dr. Robert Tyzbir.
IMPACT: You just graduated with your Master's degree at the Graduate College Commencement ceremony on May 18th. Congratulations on that achievement! What do you plan to do after graduating?
I will continue to work at UVM for the summer as a research assistant, and in the fall, I will begin my PhD in Nutritional Biology at the University of California, Davis. My research professor at UC Davis will be Dr. Sheri Zidenberg-Cherr, whose research has focused on school-based interventions. I hope to continue in a similar vein of nutrition research, where I can apply dietary assessment methods to measure the impact of school-based programs on children's dietary behaviors. I'm especially interested in understanding Farm to School programming and its intervention components, which include school gardens and salad bars. In the long term, I see myself pursuing a career in research and teaching. I can see myself as a professor or possibly working for a government agency such as the USDA's Food and Nutrition Services or the National Institutes of Health. Who knows… maybe I will apply for a faculty position at UVM one day!