The ASN Science Policy Fellowship is offered to advanced graduate students, early professionals, postdoctoral trainees, or medical interns, residents, or fellows. The intent of the Fellowship is to allow for an expanded understanding of current nutrition policy issues and initiatives. The Fellowship provides recipients with the opportunity to gain an enhanced perspective on public policy issues related to nutrition and facilitates the acquisition of skills and tools necessary to become well-informed advocates for nutrition research and policy.

Gabby Headrick is one of two current fellows. She is a PhD Candidate in Public Health Nutrition at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She has been a member of ASN since 2020. Read our full interview below.

How did you first get involved in nutrition science and research? What led you to be interested in nutrition policy?

I first fell in love with the field of nutrition when studying abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico during my second year of undergrad at the University of Vermont (UVM). UVM has a program where you can study in Oaxaca within one of three tracks in Oaxaca: food systems; Spanish; or art and music. I went to Oaxaca as a Spanish major on the Spanish track, but switched to food systems while there and have never regreted my decision. My very first nutrition course was focused on learning about the slow food movement in Oaxaca to counter the nutrition transition, exploring local markets and learning about foodways of indigenous populations. After returning from Oaxaca in spring 2013, I declared my major as Dietetics, Nutrition, and Food Science (and kept a Spanish minor). UVM’s program and opportunities for students are very rich in community nutrition and public health oriented coursework, and after my time in Oaxaca I had an early appreciation for systems thinking within the field of nutrition, making UVM the perfect fit for me to begin to grow.

I knew I wanted to focus my graduate studies in public health from my experiences in undergrad coursework and experience as an undergrad research assistant. I completed the MSPH-RD coordinated program in public health nutrition at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in March of 2018. During my masters training, I gained an appreciation for the need for policy and system change to address root causes of nutrition disparities, food insecurity, and inequitable food access. I focused on learning more about federal nutrition assistance programs in the United States, and prioritized research experiences that began to build my expertise in food and nutrition policy. What I love most about working within the field of nutrition policy is the ability to address downstream determinants of health and the ability to positively impact populations through any given policy change.

Tell us about your current position and the research activities in which you are involved.

Currently I am a PhD Candidate in Public Health Nutrition at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. My research focuses on program and policy solutions to food insecurity in the United States. I am currently working on my dissertation research, which examines how low-income households use both formal social supports (i.e., federal nutrition assistance programs) and informal social supports (i.e., their family, friends, and community) to meet their household food needs. Aside from my dissertation, I work with my advisor, Dr. Yeeli Mui, on a multi-year action project, Growing Food Policy From the Ground Up, which seeks to strengthen networks of urban growers of color in both Buffalo, NY and Minneapolis, MN. The goal is to create stronger and equitable local, urban food systems and to empower growers to be agents of change. I also work closely with one of my mentors, Dr. Alyssa Moran, on research projects evaluating SNAP policy, co-enrollment across the social safety net, and healthy food access and purchasing through online grocery services.

In addition to my academic work, I work with the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative (BFPI), which is housed in the Food Policy & Planning Division of the Department of Planning in Baltimore City. I assisted the BFPI team during the COVID-19 emergency food response by analyzing data and preparing briefs for government stakeholders to inform resource allocation. Currently, I am assisting with an evaluation of the expansion of online grocery services for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants in Baltimore.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing nutrition researchers today?

I think the biggest challenge facing nutrition researchers today is communication to a variety of audiences and knowing how to impactfully communicate to each of these unique audiences. First, there is the public. Communicating with the public is challenging because they receive so many nutrition messages from both credible and uncredible sources. Researchers need to be effective in combating misinformation and dispelling nutrition myths for the lay audience. Another key audience is government stakeholders and policymakers. This is an audience I am hoping to master communication with through this fellowship! Nutrition researchers, in all areas of nutrition, need to know how to translate their research into actionable policies and need to be able to clearly communicate these needs with change agents. This can be incredibly challenging as it is not training every researcher traditionally receives.

What influenced your decision to apply to the ASN Science Policy Fellowship program? How do you see yourself benefitting from this position?

I am passionate about creating human-centered federal nutrition assistance programs that promote food equity and security for all populations; this will require me to translate research into actionable policy change. I applied to be an ASN Science Policy Fellow to have the opportunity to gain training in research translation and advocacy as this is something you cannot master in the classroom alone. As I enter my final year of my PhD training, I am really thrilled to learn more about nutrition policy career paths that are outside of academia. I am excited to apply my past experiences in nutrition policy research, learn new skills, and expand my professional network throughout this fellowship year. I think this fellowship will be instrumental to refining my career goals and building my expertise within nutrition policy.

What aspects of ASN membership have you found most useful professionally?

The ASN Health and Nutrition Policy Newsletter is hands down one of my favorite newsletters I receive in my inbox. I always look forward to reading through the latest congressional and administrative actions, in addition to finding some helpful webinars or meetings to listen in on. As a busy student, I really credit the newsletter in being able to keep the pulse on all that is happening in Washington D.C. (and internationally!). 

Is there anything else you’d like to tell ASN members, especially students?

Never be afraid to apply for or take on an opportunity that will promote growth. As students, we are always trying to build up our toolboxes to emerge as young professionals ready to take on our career passions. You never know what door may open from a given opportunity you accept. That said, it is good to know when to say “no” so you can continue to prioritize opportunities that promote growth, expand your skills, and continue to build your expertise in areas you are most passionate about. And as you are working on all that growth, be sure to carve out time for you and the ones you love most; it’ll keep you energized to keep going.