A determined undergraduate student who took graduate-level courses at UConn is now a dedicated fourth year doctoral candidate at Penn State. Her name is Charlene Van Buiten, and she remembers the first time she met her UConn academic advisor. She told him she wanted to study food science in graduate school. Now, she is living her dream. Here is more of what she said in an interview.
What was your major in the College? When did you graduate? With what degree? I was in the Department of Nutritional Sciences (NUSC) with minors in food science and biological sciences. In May 2012, I got a BS in nutritional sciences.
What class was most useful to you? ANSC 5641 (food chemistry) and NUSC 5200 (macronutrient metabolism) are graduate level courses that I took as an undergraduate. For the classes, I had to read lots of primary literature, which helped prepare me for the rigors of graduate school and develop the critical reading and thinking skills that are necessary to be successful.
One beneficial undergraduate course was MCB 2000H (honors biochemistry). The lab consisted of a semester-long research project rather than a series of shorter laboratory exercises, which gave me a taste of the research process.
Tell us some of your fond memories of UConn. I loved my time at UConn and in the College. I appreciate that CAHNR is smaller and gives more of a sense of community than other colleges within UConn.
While working as an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Richard Mancini’s lab, I became acquainted with other undergraduate researchers and graduate students in animal science. The hard work and compassion for research demonstrated by my peers was very motivating and inspiring, and it made me feel at home.
Please describe your current situation. I am a fourth year doctoral candidate in the Department of Food Science at Penn State. I finished classes a few years ago and am now concentrating on my research and teaching. I plan to defend in about a year. After that, I hope to become a professor at a university where I can teach and run a research lab.
For my dissertation, I am focusing on developing a nutraceutical approach to treating or preventing celiac disease. Right now, I am examining specific interactions between gluten protein, which stimulates an autoimmune response in celiac disease, and the polyphenols in green tea. I have completed many experiments in silico and several in vitro to examine these interactions and their implications for the disease.
In the future, I anticipate continuing my career studying the health benefits of phytochemicals with respect to food intolerances and allergies, and I want to study their effects using animal and human models.
In addition to my research, I have worked as a teaching assistant and co-instructor for a science and technology of plant foods course, which covers the chemistry, microbiology and engineering of plant-derived food products. I am looking forward to taking over this course as the sole instructor for the first time in the upcoming fall semester.
This will be my second time instructing, as I taught a one-credit elective last fall about the communication of scientific research. This course allowed juniors and seniors involved with independent research to practice important skills like writing grant proposals, preparing research posters and speaking for both technical and lay audiences.
While we have the tendency as scientists to focus solely on technical details and competency in quantitative fields, I believe that in order to be successful, students also need to be skilled in communicating with nonscientists. If we are all able to achieve that, we can have intelligent discourse about the industry and research, especially during a time when so many people are interested in and even concerned about the food they eat.
Are you doing what you imagined you would be doing at this point in your life? Yes and no. I have always had the goal of going to graduate school for food science. I told my advisor that the first time I met him.
However, I am surprised by the amount that I enjoy teaching. It has helped me grow as a communicator and scientist by forcing me to examine information from different perspectives and constantly revisit the basics.
I also did not think I would be working on a project that related closely to nutritional science and the background I received at UConn. During my time as a NUSC student, I focused on my next step to becoming a food scientist, which caused me to overlook the importance of the link between food and health. The autonomous nature of working on a PhD has allowed me to draw on personal expertise that I gained as an undergraduate in nutrition.
Do you have any advice for current students that will help them in the future? Get to know your academic advisor or any other faculty member in your field, and do your best to build a strong relationship with him or her. These people have experience and knowledge that will help you with more than decisions about what courses to take next semester. If you’re having a hard time believing in yourself, you can believe in their support. They would not let you attempt something that they don’t think you are capable of doing!
By Patsy Evans