Practice Blog

To share practice related stories, create connections and engage readers in the amazing diversity of dietitian experiences.


Beyond bar graphs: The unexpected discoveries of research

Brandon completed his B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Applied Human Nutrition at Mount Saint Vincent University where his research projects focused on pediatric obesity. Currently, he is a full time term faculty member at Mount Saint Vincent University and a research assistant at the IWK Health Centre. He recently completed his clinical dietetic internship at the IWK Health Centre where he worked with the gastroenterology team evaluating the appropriateness of current gastroesophageal reflux disease management guidelines. To date Brandon has received funding from CIHR, NSERC, was recognized as a Scotia Scholar by the Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation and most recently was awarded the Atlantic Region and National Morgan Medal by the Canadian Foundation for Dietetic Research. You can reach Brandon at Brandon.gheller@msvu.ca.


  
My throat is dry and palms sweaty as I frantically search my pockets for my emergency thumb drive and stare at a white apple on a grey screen, slowly coming to terms with the reality of a failed hard drive. It’s my first day of lecturing 80 undergraduate students enrolled in Introduction to Macronutrients.
 
Four months earlier I had defended my master’s thesis comparing the effect of a dairy and non-dairy snack on subjective appetite, food intake and measures of glycemic regulation in overweight and obese school-aged boys. Graduation had marked the end of a six-year tenure at Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU). I had transferred as an undergraduate student with hopes of becoming a dietitian specializing in sports nutrition and finished as a graduate student consumed with thoughts of metabolism and doctoral ambitions.
 
I had just finished my PowerPoint presentation before heading to class, rechecking figures to make sure they were high resolution, that my capitalization of slide titles was consistent and that my animations were properly ordered. The topic was The Scientific Method, but now it was gone.
 
Two years into a Bachelor of Science in Applied Human Nutrition I started to volunteer in a lab that looked at appetite and food intake regulation in children. My interest in research had grown after the faculty member – who taught me the class I was about to teach – had expressed such interest and passion for nutritional research. After volunteering in his lab for two years he agreed to supervise my honours thesis project which explored the impact of video game playing in the pre-meal environment in young boys. A project that allowed me to work with a number of bright, energetic graduate students and lead me to the realization that research was my true passion.

I lamented over the fact that all my ideas and hard work had gone to waste. The picture of the leptin deficient mouse that was going to cleverly spin off into a tangent on the importance and limitations of animal models, as well as the cheeky anecdote comparing Wayne Gretzky’s goal total and obesity rates to illustrate why observational research alone cannot establish cause and effect.
 
The idea of presenting the leptin deficient mouse had come from a discussion with a PhD student down the road in Dalhousie’s physiology program who had been teaching me how to run insulin assays for my master’s project. Six months before starting a semester of biochemical analysis I had just finished my biochemistry courses, learned enough about spectrophotometry to write my lab reports and became proficient enough at convincing my lab partner to do the bulk of the pipetting so that we might have a chance at getting accurate results. Now that I was out of classes and into research, the highlight of my day was reading output from the spectrophotometer, which confirmed my improving skill but also was developing a novel story about the role of dairy in children’s health. We had been able to explain higher circulating insulin levels after consuming a dairy snack by the fact that insulin was remaining in circulation longer and not that excessive production was occurring. It is not hard to understand why I have never since questioned the applicability of any course I’ve ever taken.
 
I find the presentation created by last year’s course instructor and load it. I click through the slides as unaware as my students of what will be appearing next. Luckily, I can relate the main message of every slide to an example from my own experience; a recent presentation I saw at a conference, or some sticking point I was able to overcome in the analyzing or interpreting of my own data.

 
Spring had been such a rewarding and tiring season. I was able to defend my master’s thesis and travel to three conferences to give four presentations on various research projects I had been involved in. One of the skills I had developed was how to synthesize a great amount of information into a quick 10-minute talk. The problem was that I now needed to develop a two and a half hour presentation every week.
 
Class comes to a close, only four minutes short and the line of students with various administrative concerns begins to form. The final student in line asks for more detail about some research I had mentioned in class, where to find the paper and if he could become involved in that type of research at MSVU.
 
When I got home from class and had time to reflect I realized how similar my experience taking and teaching Introduction to Macronutrients had been. As a student I discovered how interesting research could be and as a teacher I discovered how rewarding relating that research could be. I understood how an informal conversation with another student over aliquoted serum had changed my view on the possibilities of nutritional science, or how working on a project on pediatric Crohn’s disease treatment while doing a clinical rotation in pediatric gastroenterology connected the distant worlds of research and practice. Furthermore, it gave me the opportunity to remind myself how much research has given me and what an unpredictable journey it has taken me on. In six short years I went from a life plan centered around practice-based sports nutrition to pursuing doctoral opportunities and being involved in qualitative and quantitative research.
 
Somehow, in all the time I had spent measuring my research success in terms of lines on my CV (how much funding had been secured, how many awards had been won, how many presentations and publications had been developed and how I compared to my peers) I hadn’t noticed the shift in how I think about research and how greatly the process had shaped me.
 
Editor's Note: Do you have any nagging research questions you want answered? Why not become more involved with research and contribute to our knowledge base? Maybe you'll enjoy it just as much as Brandon and head down the road to a PhD!
  1. Great post Brondon, and Congratulations on your graduation from the Master's program. Research is an interesting field, which is a common experience I am living right now at the University of Saskatchewan.
    Thanks for sharing these stories with us in such a nice way! My heart was beating when started reading about the presentation story!
    Best of luck in your future endeavors!

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