A player on the UConn women’s basketball team. A researcher in Professor Nancy Rodriguez’s lab. The president and CEO of the Sugar Association. What is the common thread in these roles? Courtney Gaine and teamwork. Gaine, who was a student in allied health as an undergraduate, has been on several “teams.” Here is what she had to say in an interview.
What was your major in the College? When did you graduate? With what degree? I studied dietetics in the Department of Allied Health Sciences (before it was part of CAHNR) and got a BS in 2000.
Overall, I was at UConn for 11 years. I got my PhD there in 2005 in nutritional sciences and stayed on for a postdoc.
What classes were most useful to you? As an undergraduate, I took organic chemistry, which trained my brain to think. And, general nutrition was a helpful applied science course. In addition, I remember my graduate chemistry class. What I learned in that course, such as how amino acids are structured and how amino acids interact, is important.
Tell us some of your fond memories of UConn. I came to UConn on a basketball scholarship and played on the women’s team. This made school challenging because sometimes I would get home from an away game at 1:30 AM, need to start classes at 8 AM and then go to practice at 5:15 PM.
We did not win a national championship while I was on the team, but the men did in 1999. It was a first. I will never forget that spring. There was much celebration, and students gathered around bonfires outside.
I was part of Professor Nancy Rodriguez’s lab in graduate school. She is the best! Transitioning from basketball to the lab was easy for me because both roles involved teamwork. I remember the fun and jokes, the people Rodriguez brought in and the research trials we did.
For me, UConn was a lot of fun, lots of work and not a lot of sleeping.
Please describe your current job. I was recently promoted to the title of permanent president and CEO of the Sugar Association. The group was founded by people in the U.S. sugar industry. Ninety-percent of the sugar produced in the United States is from our members.
I still perform the duties I had as the vice president of scientific affairs, such as developing a research plan for the sugar industry and engaging in policy maker education by communicating a scientific connection to food and nutrition. In addition, I stay current with research developments and know the pulse of the industry.
An important part of my job as the leader of the association is making contacts with associations in other countries. Food and agriculture have become so global now. This requires me to give many talks overseas to those in the global sugar industry.
In addition, I need to be a unifying force for our own members. The Sugar Association works with 11 coops. Some are massive with up to 10,000 sugar farmers in them. It is like heading up a very large family where the individuals sometimes see important issues from different perspectives. We need teamwork here, too.
Are you doing what you imagined you would be doing at this point in your life? No and yes. Before I got my PhD, I wanted to be a lobbyist. Part of my influence was being from Washington, D.C. and having a lawyer for a father.
After I got my doctorate, I changed career aspirations when I taught exercise and nutrition in the College of Health and Human Performance at East Carolina University. This doesn’t surprise me because I always have an open mind and am willing to try nontraditional things. Now, I am back home in D.C. and near my family with a new job.
Do you have any advice for current students that will help them in the future? 1) Have an open mind. There are many career opportunities to discover. 2) Get out there. Meet people who help you to open your mind to something new. The nutritional and agricultural world is a small one, which makes it easy to have social interactions with others in the scientific community.
Is there anything else you would like us to know about you? I eat candy for breakfast and do not want it for the rest of the day.
Many people think there is an inconsistency between my educational background in dietetics and nutrition and my current job promoting sugar. So, I tell them about my candy consumption, which represents my personality and desire to defy restrictions.
I also explain the role of sugar in a healthy diet, such as adding it to whole grains and yogurt in order to make them more palatable. I say that sugar has a function in food, but I do not recommend unlimited sweets and treats. I want people to consume sugar in moderation and eat a balanced diet.
For more about Gaine’s UConn basketball career, see this recent Hartford Courant article.
By Patsy Evans