Nutritional Sciences program grows fast, adds lab

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When the fall 2020 semester begins, GCU’s Nutritional Sciences program will introduce its new Program Director, Courtney Baker, and a new lab in the Technology Building. (Photo by Elizabeth Tinajero)

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Angelica Placencia said it surprised her how much she loved the nutrition class she took.

Angelica Placencia had her heart set on becoming a nurse. Then she took an introductory nutrition class and that was it.

“My passion for nutrition came out of nowhere; it surprised me,” said Placencia, who in December is slated to be among the first graduates of Grand Canyon University’s burgeoning Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Sciences program. Since being introduced in fall 2019, the program has grown so quickly it has surprised the science faculty in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology.

It now touts almost 100 students along with a new addition to the faculty, Director of Nutrition and Dietetics Courtney Baker. The college also is anticipating the opening of a program-dedicated facility, the Nutritional Sciences Lab, which will welcome its first students when in-person classes begin this fall.

Sciences Program Director Dr. Bina Vanmali said CSET is anticipating that the Nutritional Sciences program will continue to see growth.

“For a program that’s 1 year old, that’s really good,” said Dr. Bina Vanmali, the college’s Sciences Program Director.

Nutritional Sciences owes a lot of its expansion to the campus’ students, who pushed for the major and, since it has been added, have nudged it forward by word of mouth.

Not that the University hadn’t already dug its heels into related programs.

“GCU saw a strong interest in the overall field of sports medicine, where we already have well-established programs in Exercise Science and Athletic Training. Nutritional Sciences was the missing piece,” said Dr. Jon Valla, Assistant Dean of Science.

His team saw the popularity of the college’s always packed nutrition class despite being an upper-division elective. It’s so popular that the college recently added a general education course in Nutrition and Wellness (NSC 150). Both courses are also part of the curriculum for the new Nutritional Sciences program.

Assistant Dean of Science Dr. Jon Valla said GCU saw a strong interest in its Exercise Science and Athletic Training programs. “Nutritional Sciences was the missing piece,” he said.

With so much attention focused on health and nutrition – from the chatter surrounding Keto, Paleo and plant-based diets, to food science trends, such as impossible burgers, to continuing America’s battle against obesity and diabetes – it’s no wonder that the nutritional sciences is as popular as it is.

“The thing about nutrition that I love is that there’s not a single person it doesn’t apply to,” said Baker, who worked for the Women, Infants and Children program and as the Dietetic Internship Director for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health before starting her job at GCU in late August. “Everyone has to eat, so it applies to everybody on a personal level.”

Anyone who enters the Nutritional Sciences program at GCU should expect to take plenty of science courses: chemistry, anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and microbiology. They’ll also delve into nutrition-specific courses, such as the metabolism of macro and micronutrients, and lifestyle nutrition that spans from pregnant women to individuals in the geriatric stage of life.

Averi Atkinson is most excited this semester about working in the new Nutritional Sciences Lab.

But for Averi Atkinson, who changed her major from Nursing to Nutritional Sciences,  what’s most exciting is working in the Nutritional Sciences Lab, which is close to completion in the Technology Building.

The front part of the space is a classroom, while the back portion includes a bank of wall ovens, microwaves, refrigerators/freezers and two kitchen-type islands with stove cooktops and sinks.

“It can be used as a combined space for multiple nutrition classes this fall,” said Teresa Bohman, the college’s Lab Manager. “We have started stocking it with the needed equipment and are excited about running the first food science lab this fall.”

One course designed for the lab will introduce students to food preparation, though the focus won’t be on cooking. Students will delve into ingredient interactions and the impact of different food-preparation methods. Baker said it’s where students will analyze the viscosity of different foods, for example, and “engage with different types of flour and different pH levels and how things bake; it’s the science behind food, essentially.”

Atkinson said she would love to work in a research lab to discover the next food that will improve people’s health or help them overcome an ailment.

For students entering the field, Baker said not only could they work in a research lab, but they could work as a nutritionist in a hospital or for a government health program, such as WIC. Other possibilities include corporate wellness programs or menu planning for school districts or sports organizations.

“There just is a lot of opportunity going into this major,” Baker said. “Even if you don’t want to work in a hospital, there are so many other components you can fall in love with. If you love science and you love helping people, then this is a really quality major for you to enter into and really get a lot out of.”

What drew Atkinson to the Nutritional Sciences program were the nutritionists who helped her mother when she was in the intensive care unit about a year and a half ago.

“That really helped me, as well,” she said, and she’d love to help people in the same way, whether in a research lab or in a clinical setting.

Baker worked for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health before coming to GCU. (Photo by Elizabeth Tinajero)

Much like Placencia, who was surprised by how much she loved the study of nutrition, Baker said that nutrition also was not her first major in college.

“I began falling in love with nutrition as a college volleyball athlete,” she said. “It amazed me the dramatic changes I saw in my game by learning more about nutrition and adapting that knowledge to my own diet.”

She hopes the students who pursue nutrition at GCU feel the same way – that they, too, are amazed by the impact nutrition can make in a person’s life.

Placencia, who still wants to pursue nursing in addition to nutrition and “be that super well-rounded nurse,” said her ideal job is to work for a sports team and create meal plans for athletes, though she also wants to travel and “see what kind of superfoods are out there that Americans don’t really know exist and the benefit they hold.

“I really see how it (what you eat) just affects everything and has an effect on your overall health.”

Vanmali is excited about the future of the program, particularly with the addition of its new Program Director.

Students will study the science behind food in the new Nutritional Sciences Lab. (Photo by Elizabeth Tinajero)

Baker comes to the University not just with educational experience but is also strong in program-building along with being familiar with the accreditation process, Vanmali said. “All of these things are going to be essential to us as we’re moving to the next stages of this program and the future we hope to have.”

She also sees the Nutritional Sciences Lab as a big step forward.

“The lab is much bigger than we need it to be for the number of students we have right now, but it’s because we anticipate that the program will continue to grow, which is exciting.”

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

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