Department of Nutritional Sciences: an overview

Senior nutritional sciences major and honors student Angelika Muter works in the lab of her advisor, Alison Kohan.
Senior allied health sciences major and honors student Angelika Muter works in the lab of her honors advisor, Assistant Professor Alison Kohan.

“Our goal is to improve the nutritional well-being and health of individuals and families, through teaching, research and outreach programs,” says Sung Koo, professor and head of the Department of Nutritional Sciences. “According to Academic Analytics, our department is nationally ranked in the 95th percentile among 83 similar programs. The healthcare industry is booming, and job potential is great.”

“For example, there is a growing demand for registered dietitians, both locally and nationally, while at the same time there is a demand for advanced degrees in nutrition and health-related disciplines,” Koo points out. “Over the past fifteen years, student enrollment in the Department of Nutritional Sciences has increased from 50 to nearly 200, in part due to the national emphasis on nutrition and health. Our program is designed to increase the workforce in the area of health and wellness.”

The undergraduate program consists of two tracks: nutritional sciences and dietetics. Students earning a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences may choose to attend graduate school or professional programs such as medical or dental school, or they may enter the work force in wellness or food service industries. Students enrolled in the didactic program in dietetics (DPD) follow a curriculum accredited by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. After graduation, students must complete a dietetic internship to be eligible to take the exam for the RD (Registered Dietitian) certification.

Dietetic internships are highly competitive. “Our five-year average indicates that 68 percent of students apply to internships within a year of graduating, and 79 percent receive an internship within a year of earning their verification statement,” says Rhonda Brownbill, DPD director. “Ninety-eight percent of our students pass the RD exam within a year of their first attempt at taking the exam.”

The department’s graduate program includes MS and Ph.D. degrees in nutritional sciences, with three major areas of focus: biochemical and molecular nutrition, human nutrition and metabolism, and community nutrition.

“A master’s degree adds credentials for our students,” says Koo. “This prepares them to move up in their careers as dietitians, nutritionists, wellness or fitness educators, or research assistants.”

Students in the Food Service Systems Management Laboratory (NUSC 3271) learn from a UConn firefighter how to extinguish a kitchen blaze.
Students in the Food Service Systems Management Laboratory (NUSC 3271) learn from a UConn firefighter how to extinguish a kitchen blaze.

Most students pursuing a Ph.D. in nutritional sciences choose academic careers, although some have found their positions in the government sector, community outreach and extension, or food industries.

The major areas of research for faculty and graduate students include nutrient metabolism, molecular/cellular nutrition, health effects of bioactive compounds, obesity prevention and obesity-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, fatty-liver disease, type-2 diabetes and skeletal health. Research is funded by nearly $5 million from federal agencies, industry and foundations. Department researchers collaborate with faculty in various UConn departments and UConn Health; from outside the University, including the Yale School of Medicine and the University of Rhode Island; and globally with institutions in South America, Asia and the Middle East.

Current research projects address a wide variety of nutrition and health-related areas. A few of these include:

  • Christopher Blesso, assistant professor, studies milk sphingolipids (milk fat) as a dietary component favorably altering gut microflora.
  • Ock Chun, associate professor, conducts a novel study on relationships of dietary antioxidant capacity to a possible reduction in prostate cancer risk and bone health associated with aging.
  • Maria Luz Fernandez, professor, studies the health benefits of eggs and food bioactive components as related to coronary heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and age-related macular degeneration.
  • Alison Kohan, assistant professor, investigates the novel role of apolipoprotein C-III, produced in the intestine in response to fat feeding, with immune functions.
  • Ji-Young Lee, professor, studies the roles of astaxanthin and other bioactive compounds in preventing the development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and liver fibrosis.
  • Yangchao Luo, assistant professor, focuses on developing safe and effective nano-delivery systems to increase bioavailability of health-promoting food bioactives.
  • Amy Mobley, associate professor, investigates the role of parenting program and father-focused nutrition in prevention of childhood obesity and has launched a study to develop and pilot test mHealth (mobile health technology) enhancements for a father-focused childhood obesity prevention program.
  • Young-Ki Park, assistant research professor, investigates how dietary bioactive compounds affect fat cell inflammation as related to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
  • Nancy Rodriguez, professor, focuses on dietary protein and exercise on muscle metabolism and function, particularly as associated with aging.
Participants in a father-focused childhood obesity program prevention program for preschool age children in the community.
Participants in a father-focused childhood obesity program prevention program for preschool age children in the community.

“In addition to research, our outreach and population-based programs focus on nutrition education, food security and obesity prevention,” Koo says. “These programs include community partnerships with Extension.”

“The Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), directed by Michael Puglisi, assistant extension professor, is coordinated with UConn Extension as funded by the USDA NIFA. This is a federal program for low-income individuals and families offered through land-grant universities, providing peer education on basic nutrition, cooking skills, resource management (shopping on a budget), physical activity and food safety,” says Puglisi.

He is also working with educators from the Fairfield County Extension Center on a new program called the 4-H Sports Nutrition Program, involving EFNEP and 4-H, designed to help under-served children ages 8-10 adopt healthy habits such as regular physical activity, social bonding and teamwork.

By Kim Colavito Markesich