By Matt Hawkins
As a freshman, dietetics major Anna Smith ’18 dreamed of sharing research at the nation’s largest professional nutrition conference. As a senior, she stood among 12,000 current and future dietitians at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo with a project headed for publication.
Smith, an Arnold-Wheeler Scholar from Ballwin, Mo., committed to a long-term project that eventually became the FNCE presentation. Her work explored attitudes and uses of food labels, with a focus on college students and how universities discuss labels in nutrition courses. Throughout the process, she discovered an appreciation for evidence-based studies and the value of faculty mentors.
“This was an opportunity like no other,” Smith said. “I could read all I wanted in class, but doing research taught me so much more. It’s amazing I’ve had four years of guided study, and I’m passionate for research I’ll do in graduate school.”
Coming from a military family, Smith originally wanted to study nutrition in the armed forces. However, as a budding health expert on a college campus, she was intrigued by peers’ use of nutrition information. She decided to study students’ attitudes and use of nutritional labels instead.
Through a lengthy survey, the study showed Bradley students who took a nutrition course were significantly more likely to understand and use information on the nutrition facts label. The survey also created future research possibilities into college nutrition education.
Smith’s survey required a large sample of the student body, so she turned to her former professors for help. To her surprise, all faculty she contacted forwarded survey information to classes. As a result, the study received input from more than 400 students — a scientifically acceptable number for the project.
“I can’t imagine receiving help like this at a big university,” she said. “The professors understood the value of my research and were willing to help me. I was shocked but thankful they followed through because I couldn’t have reported solid results without them.”
Smith worked under mentorship of family and consumer sciences assistant professor Dr. Teresa Drake. Drake received credit for guidance and for encouraging her to chase the FNCE dream.
“We clicked as a team,” Smith said. “I needed someone to help me along, and she was willing to be there for me, supporting my goals and helping me understand issues I ran into.”
Research came together and made the cut for FNCE’s October 2017 conference, where she received a platform to share her ideas. To her surprise, she found a receptive audience from many college educators who offered insights and validated her work.
“It was exciting to talk about my research with so many people,” Smith said. “I saw their passion and wanted to be like them.”
The thorough project introduced Smith to evidence-gathering processes that will guide her career in dietetics. Research challenges forced her to grow as a person and researcher as she notched academic accomplishments. These experiences will be valuable as she pursues a dietetic internship and hopes to follow her family into the military.
“At times, I was scared about the process, but the action happened when I stepped outside my comfort zone,” Smith said. “I’m grateful I got involved in a challenging project that could affect others and change lives.”