Human nutritional sciences degree opens new doors for students

When Jonas Gomez moved to Kerman 10 years ago from the small, central Mexican town of Morelos, he was exposed to a new world of food through his uncle, who prepared many of the family’s meals.

That evolution continues today for Gomez, a Fresno State graduate food science and nutrition graduate who received his bachelor’s degree through the didactics program in dietetics in 2019.

Since arriving in the Central Valley, Gomez has become a vegetarian and has taken his family meals in new directions. Thanks to his knowledge and input, the family now has a more balanced mix of nutrient sources in their diet.

“My grandmother always said that food makes people happy and brings them together, which is really important,” said Gomez. “My uncle has always prepared foods from many cultures, so he loved trying new recipes and ingredients, and it also helped him better control his cholesterol levels.”

On his way to becoming a clinical nutritionist, Gomez will be offsetting a busy class load this fall researching an oral supplement program and its impact on patients undergoing major abdominal surgery.

The study, which focuses on a leucine by-product (HMB) and patient rehabilitation, is being led by faculty members Dr. Shabnam Pooya and Dr. Amir Fathi from the Community Regional Medical Center in downtown Fresno.

Students like Gomez, who have a particular interest in natural sciences and laboratory research, are the goal of a new, nutritional bachelor’s degree.

The new path will improve student career opportunities thanks to a mix of new courses, industry partnerships, internships and work experience.

Students pursuing a career as a qualified nutritionist, one of the most popular courses in the department, will also be taken into account by the new degree.

Both academic options have a similar initial path by examining the nutritional basics and health benefits of various foods. As seniors, they split into two subgroups.

Registered dietitians in the nutritional sciences will focus primarily on clinical nutrition and medical nutritional therapy. Nutrition students will take a closer look at metabolism at the cellular level and learn molecular techniques used in laboratories, such as protein extraction and western blotting.

To help design a new campus laboratory focused on nutritional research, Pooya is partnering with the Ag One Foundation and the Fresno State Foundation to raise funds.

The laboratory will give students hands-on training in key laboratory analysis methods, such as calculating lipids or antioxidants in blood samples or comparing blood sugar levels after consuming high and low glycemic index foods.

Learning new laboratory techniques can help students better understand how eating habits affect metabolism and can cause or treat certain chronic and genetic disorders. These skills and additional scientific prerequisites also prepare them for a specialized job market that includes medical, nursing and pharmaceutical positions with a focus on biology and biochemistry.

“This is a great option for students who have a strong interest in science and laboratory professions while expanding on other courses we already offer in nutrition, culinary and food science,” said Pooya.

“Only one other university in the state of California offers a similar bachelor’s degree and therefore fulfills an important need our healthcare providers and researchers in the community need in studying health problems down to the molecular level.”

The fifth year faculty member brings a wealth of experience researching neurological and metabolic responses in areas such as glial cell signaling and vitamin deficiency issues associated with pregnancy, lactation, and liver and heart disease.

Her degrees and research took her around the world to prestigious universities in France and Iran; a didactic course at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa; and hospitals in Ohio and Wisconsin.

In the coming year she will, among other things, teach advanced courses on macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and lipids) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and liquids), as well as a research-based course that prepares students for basic laboratory and clinical settings.

The new degree will provide students with an understanding of metabolic, genetic, and nutritional disorders common in the Central Valley, such as obesity and malnutrition. Students and faculty hope to work directly with local health workers and community members, especially in underserved and economically disadvantaged communities.

Incoming students found out about Pooya and her colleague Dr. Lisa Herzig at the Dog Days orientation events about the new course before they scheduled their autumn courses.

“When we talk about science topics like how genes can affect our diet and vice versa, you see some students’ eyes light up,” said Pooya. “The opportunity to combine research into metabolism with our lessons offers students such a wonderful and broad knowledge base.”

Herzig is starting her 15th year on campus working with students on dietitian, nutrition, and physical exam and is equally excited about the opportunities.

“There is a clear need for these professions in our region,” said Herzig. “This new degree gives health and nutrition professionals who work with individuals on a personal level additional resources to be more effective. This program takes our college to a new level as we zoom in from farm-to-fork principles into new areas that involve genetics, metabolism and health. “

Doctoral student Gomez’s favorite labs during his undergraduate studies included one taught by Herzig, where students created nutritional plans for clients faced with specific illnesses or health conditions.

Now he is taking his studies to a new level to analyze cell signals, human tissue reactions and related effects on proteins and mitochondria.

“I’m proud of the diet our family has made and how it has evolved and brought us together in new ways,” said Gomez. “There are many ways that diet can have a positive impact on our lives, and a lot of it comes from education and research.”

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