Jessica Soldavini, PhD Candidate in Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Graduate Research Assistant at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention

Jessica Soldavini received her B.S. in Nutritional Sciences from the University of California, Berkeley, with a focus in Dietetics, and received her M.P.H. in Community Health Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is now completing her Ph.D. studies in Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Jessica is a Registered Dietitian and works as a Graduate Research Assistant with the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. She has been a member of ASN since 2017.

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

I first became interested in nutrition while I was in high school and decided that I wanted to become a Registered Dietitian. While studying nutritional science as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley I gained a variety of experiencesthat helped me to discover which areas of nutrition I wanted to focus on. An internship at a local health department helped me to develop my passion for working in underserved communities and doing work that addressed food insecurity and health disparities. I discovered my interest for public health nutrition research through volunteering at the UC Berkeley Center for Weight and Health, working as a data assistant at the Sarah Samuels Center for Public Health Research and Evaluation (formerly Samuels and Associates), and completing an honors research project.

I am very interested in nutrition policy because it can reach a large number of individuals and plays a major role in the types of foods and nutrition information that individuals are able to access. My interest in nutrition policy was first sparked while I was in high school and there was a lot of media coverage surrounding trans fat labeling. I became very interested in this topic and the role that labeling regulations play in helping consumers to make healthy choices. During my internship at a local health department, I gained exposure to working on local-level policies by helping develop an implementation plan for a county nutrition and physical activity policy. My work on local and organizational-level policies continued in my first job as a registered dietitian, where I worked on projects such as helping to write a county-wide worksite lactation accommodation policy. I currently do a lot of work around federal nutrition programs, and nutrition policy plays a big part in these programs.

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

I am currently a doctoral student in the Department of Nutrition at UNC Chapel Hill and my advisor is Dr. Alice Ammerman. I work as a graduate research assistant at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention where I focus on food insecurity, federal nutrition programs, and community-based nutrition and cooking education. I work closely with No Kid Hungry NC and evaluate projects related to underutilized federal child nutrition programs, including school breakfast, summer meals, and at-risk afterschool meals. I also lead a nutrition and cooking education program that is funded through SNAP-Ed, and supervise a team of around 20 undergraduate and graduate student volunteers and interns. I am doing research with Dr. Maureen Berner in the UNC School of Government around food insecurity in college students. For the past few years, I have been teaching a nutrition policy seminar with Dr. Ammerman and am currently helping to develop a new online nutrition policy course.

3. Is there any specific aspect of your research that you are personally passionate about?

I am very passionate about doing research that can be used by practitioners to make a positive impact in the community. Through my work with No Kid Hungry NC, I work closely with organizations implementing federal child nutrition programs. By working with these partners, I am able to develop research and evaluation projects to collect data that are most useful to those working in the field. I also have numerous opportunities to share those data with individuals working in these programs, to help with improving their programs and advocating for change, as well as identify areas where they have been successful.

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

I think that the ASN Science Policy Fellowship will be a great opportunity to gain a stronger understanding of current nutrition policy issues and learn more about how nutrition researchers can influence policy. I am very excited for the opportunity to work with the ASN Committee on Advocacy and Science Policy and get more involved with ASN. I think that this experience will make me more effective in my research and advocacy efforts, as well as the courses I teach and the mentorship I provide to students.

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

Last summer I attended Nutrition 2018. This was my first time attending an ASN conference and I found it very beneficial. It was a great opportunity to both present my own research and hear about the latest research from others in the field. As a student, I found the career/professional development sessions to be especially useful. It was also a great opportunity to network with others in the field. I’m looking forward to attending Nutrition 2019 this summer!

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

Follow your passion. When you do work that you’re passionate about, it doesn’t feel like work. I also encourage everyone to get involved with organizations such as ASN and to try to take advantage of the many opportunities that they offer, such as the ASN Science Policy Fellowship.

[Find out more about the ASN Science Policy Fellowship]

Jessica Soldavini’s research interests include food insecurity and poor dietary outcomes, with a particular interest in nutrition policy as it relates to federal nutrition programs. In addition to her research activities at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Jessica has worked on research projects with RTI International and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Evidence Analysis Library. She also teaches a nutrition policy course at UNC Chapel Hill and is helping to develop a new online nutrition policy course. Jessica looks forward to contributing to policy-related projects with ASN in her role as Science Policy Fellow.