Rebecca Hagedorn, PhD Candidate in Animal and Food Science at West Virginia University and ISPP dietetic intern at the University of Arizona

Rebecca Hagedorn received her B.S. in Human Nutrition and Foods from West Virginia University and she is now completing her Ph.D. studies in the Animal and Food Science program at West Virginia University. She is an NIH T32 Behavioral and Biomedical Sciences Trainee, a graduate of the Applied Biostatistics Certificate Program through the West Virginia University School of Public Health, and has advanced research training in behavioral analysis and experimental models. Rebecca has been a member of ASN since 2018.

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

As an undergraduate at West Virginia University, I was provided the opportunity to volunteer with Dr. Melissa Olfert in the Lifestyle Intervention Research Lab and quickly caught the research bug. When I first started, I got hands on experience with USDA-funded projects and the many facets of behavioral change interventions. My interest in policy developed for two reasons. First, through my experiences working in lifestyle interventions, I’ve learned that it’s hard to expect individuals to sustain change when the environment and associated policies do not support their new behaviors. This sparked my interest as to how to incorporate policy, at some level, into my research to facilitate and sustain behavior change for improvement of health outcomes. Policy is the umbrella that encompasses all change that can happen below. Second, as a lifelong resident of West Virginia, the voice and vote of the legislators is often disconnected from the needs of the state population. As a state with some of the largest health disparities of the United States, promoting legislature that improves access to nutrition resources, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is essential. However, state representative votes showcase different priorities, with more conservative views of nutrition assistance programs and other nutrition related programs. Overall, there is a disconnect between science and policy that can ultimately worsen outcomes for all populations, and thus the voice of nutritional professionals in political agendas is essential.

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

Currently, I am a doctoral candidate at West Virginia University and an ISPP dietetic intern through the University of Arizona, with projected completion of both programs this spring. My research interests focus on food insecurity among college students and the behavioral consequences food insecurity can provoke. Further, I have led the development of a toolkit that encompasses programming that universities throughout the country are implementing to provide aid to students in need. This toolkit covers mostly downstream solutions and how to provide assistance to ensure that students have access to food when need arises. However, upstream solutions are also promoted in a policy change chapter to provide more insight at potentially fixing the issue of food insecurity at the core. It’s my belief that both upstream and downstream solutions are needed currently as upstream solutions and social justice for students (i.e. making college more affordable) will require time for policy reconsideration and implementation and students deserve resources in the interim. Food is a fundamental right and policy change is a huge step in ensuring that a secure food environment is possible for college students, but funding for emergency food programs is just as vital in ensuring the students’ needs are met.

Beyond food insecurity research, I work to improve medical curriculums to incorporate nutrition education as a means to ensure that future health practitioners have the knowledge and confidence to address nutrition issues. Registered dietitians are a key resource for addressing nutrition education but often times trust and respect lies with doctors. Further, limitations arise within health insurance coverage for dietitians and thus doctors need to be empowered to address nutritional issues and promote evidence-based practices for the best patient outcomes.

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

Lack of public trust or understanding of evidence-based recommendations and funding. Science communication is a large barrier to ensuring the public understands nutritional findings. Unfortunately, avenues of scientific dissemination are often not the platforms used by the general public. What information does penetrate into the public is often misconstrued through social media headlines that fail to convey the true interpretation of the research. This can lead to fads without true understanding of the nutritional background for dietary change or how this impacts the body’s functionality. There is a desire for immediate results, however, properly conducted research takes years to develop a robust understanding of nutritional outcomes. Lastly, funding is a barrier to conducting research, especially within academia, that is well-designed and conducted appropriately. Often times, researchers are forced to make decisions as to how to cut corners to deal with slashed budgets and create the best product from the funding allotted.

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

I applied for the ASN Science Policy Fellowship to increase my policy experience as I transition out of graduate school. I sought as many options as I could during my tenure at West Virginia University but believe that the ASN Science Policy Fellowship will allow more experiential opportunities and the opportunity to work closely with experts in the field of nutrition advocacy.

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

Attendance of ASN’s annual conference and the ASN Health and Nutrition Policy Newsletter have been the aspects of ASN membership that have been most useful to me. The ASN Health and Nutrition Policy Newsletter is a great resource for staying up to date with the current developments in the nutrition field including research, policy, and funding opportunities. I enjoy taking a moment each week to catch up on what is happening. The ASN conference has been a great networking opportunity for me as well and I enjoy attending each year. I have developed collaborative research relationships through attending that are beneficial as I start an independent career.

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

To student members of ASN, never let the fear of rejection keep you from seeking opportunities to improve your education. No is just a word that is spoken as easily as yes. You never know the doors that will be opened by putting yourself up for positions that might be viewed as outside your realm of expertise or field of study. Also, attend Nutrition 2019! The conference is a great way to create relationships with peers, learn about emerging research, and explore potential career or academic opportunities.

[Find out more about the ASN Science Policy Fellowship]

Rebecca Hagedorn’s primary research interests are food insecurity and the lasting impact of lifestyle intervention programs on behavioral nutrition, focusing on the impact of food insecurity in college students. Her work focuses on the investigation of emergency food programs and suggested policy developments to improve the sustainability of the college food environment to promote student well-being. In addition to her research interests, Rebecca is passionate about nutrition and health policy, and lectures on health policy in graduate and undergraduate nutrition courses. She also attends hill visits in Washington, DC, and looks forward to serving as an ex officio member of ASN’s Committee on Advocacy and Science Policy and developing her science policy communication writing.