Meet UT Austin’s Student-Centered, Research-Driven Professors of Nutritional Science
December 23, 2020 | edX team
Back in the early 2000s, Jaimie Davis was a registered dietitian at a well-known spa and resort and was growing frustrated by a lack of credible research behind some of the latest dieting trends and weight management fads.
“There were all of these books and media pushing this information, but there was no research behind it,” Davis said. “That’s what sparked my interest to go further into the dietetics field to understand nutritional science.” Davis went on to earn her doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin. She’s now a leading researcher and associate professor in UT Austin’s master’s program in nutritional sciences where she teaches Energy Balance and Obesity.
It’s the expertise of faculty that makes the difference for UT Austin’s online nutrition sciences program. Students aren’t just earning their master’s in an innovative learning environment, but they’re also supported and mentored by trained instructors, like Davis, who are leaders in their respective fields of nutritional science.
Davis is part of a team of national experts across the broad spectrum of nutritional science research and practice. Her expertise ranges from focusing on nutrition in physical activity to body composition assessment in pediatric populations. Her research also involves developing and testing school and community-based gardening and cooking programs targeting obesity prevention and treatment for low-income minority populations.
Like many professionals who enter the field of nutritional science and dietetics, Davis is passionate about improving health and wellness through healthy eating and research-based nutrition.
“Nutrition is tied to every single disease out there, so I think our work is at the forefront of disease prevention,” Davis said. “So much of our healthcare system is spent on treatment, but we need to move towards prevention. If we can figure out ways to get people eating healthier and exercising more, we can save our healthcare system billions of dollars in the future. I see our profession as a critical player in that work, making sure our communities have accessible and available healthy foods.”
Forming 1:1 Connections With Students
Davis says one of her favorite parts of the job is working directly with students in the master’s degree program. The students share her passion and are motivated to gain skills and knowledge to make a positive difference. They also challenge her own thinking.
“They're just so dedicated and interested in this topic, and they push me. They're always questioning the science and evidence behind the research that’s out there. So it’s great discussion to be able to go back and forth with them,” Davis said.
UT Austin’s rigorous instructor-paced online course design helps set students up for success from day one, Davis says, something that is especially important right now with so much of the country working and studying remotely.
Davis says that her role is critical to keep students motivated, engaged, and inspired throughout the course. That’s why she makes it a priority to connect personally with students. Early on in the course, Davis holds virtual office hours and encourages students to join. These informal meetings are ways to build relationships or discuss specific issues and questions that students may have. Understanding students’ unique interests, perspectives, and backgrounds helps her tailor instruction and support for individual students.
“It helps me develop their skills because I can get a sense of what their experiences are and their work, and build off of their interests.” she said.
A Hands-On, Research-Driven Approach
Davis says that the best way to become an expert in nutrition science is through experience and application of the ideas and concepts that they are learning in the coursework.
She credits the UT Austin department’s project-based curriculum and online assessments as an effective way to develop student’s critical thinking skills and help them to gain real-world field work.
“It's not just a matter of knowing the information. It’s not enough to know about metabolism, but it’s about knowing how to use that information to solve current problems,” Davis said. “How do we think critically about diets, and disease prevention, and interventions to figure out what is successful, what is sustainable, and what is scalable?”
A Credential With a Competitive Advantage
For undergraduate students or current registered dietitians who are considering a master's degree program, Davis has some recommendations.
“A master's is soon going to be required for all registered dietitians, so a lot of current students know they’ll need it eventually to be competitive.”
For professionals who are currently working in the field, Davis says that a lot of students fit that description. The biggest benefit, she said, is that they will have the opportunity to develop a skillset to measure and assess nutritional science efficacy and immediately put it to use in their jobs.
Lastly, she says a master’s degree is a way to combat misinformation about nutrition. “You can literally look up any nutritional research question and get 20 different answers,” says Davis, who takes pride in the research expertise of UT Austin’s staff. “Our group is very strong in knowing about cutting-edge research - what’s fluff, and what’s real science based on clinical study.”
“Students need to be able to decipher incorrect and correct nutrition information. I think our program does a really good job of dispelling myths and also highlighting best practices that are scientifically and rigorously backed up by research.”
Learn More About UT Austin’s Nutritional Sciences Master’s Program
Get started: Visit UT Austin’s Master’s in Nutritional Sciences page to learn more.