Funded by a five-year grant, this program enables students to gain comprehensive and integrated skills through research, Extension and experiential learning.
It is not often college students get the opportunity to see the potential impact they can make through their career choice before they graduate.
This unique opportunity has presented itself to undergraduates from many disciplines and colleges across Texas Tech University as well as students transferring from South Plains College – with a special emphasis on women and underrepresented groups – who want to get training in the area of foods, nutrition and agriculture and either attend graduate school or find jobs within these industries.
Called the Nutrition Bench-to-Community Engaged Scholars in Texas (Nutrition BEST) program, this transdisciplinary, multi-institutional and international collaboration aims to develop the next generation of a highly skilled and trained workforce in nutrition and agriculture with high-impact practices through research, Extension and experiential learning.
The grant was awarded and launched in summer 2021 with planning and recruitment efforts and the first Nutrition BEST Scholars cohort began in the fall 2022. The students are trained in basic and community nutrition, obesity research and prevention, data and literature analyses, and applications of modeling and machine-learning tools.
This grant aims to recruit and train a total of 30 students in separate cohorts by 2026.
“The fact that I got to learn so much in three months about how horticulture affects the community really helps me when I am thinking about my future career,” said Jorja Washington, a member of the first cohort of seven students. “I want to be able to visit corporations and start up urban gardens to teach them about nutrition and healing their body holistically.”
Washington is a nutritional sciences student who will earn her bachelor's degree this fall. She feels more confident than ever in her decision to become a dietitian after participating in the Nutrition BEST program, which is made possible through a five-year, $500,000 grant.
The Obesity Research Institute (ORI) received the grant in 2021 from the Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which is under the Agriculture, Food and Research Initiative portfolio for education and workforce development.
The Nutrition BEST program's integrated student experience blends research training at Texas Tech with optional summer internships with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension where students are mentored by Family & Community Health Extension agents and educators – an opportunity Washington knew she needed to take.
“It really helped me because I needed that community experience,” Washington said. “Since I took this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I have all that lab research and community research to put on my resume to set me apart from others. I think that anyone who worked for the USDA or AgriLife is really going to stand out.”
Washington's time at the GRUB (Growing Recruits for Urban Business) Program at the South Plains Food Bank is an example of how Nutrition BEST connects students with opportunities to volunteer and learn from organizations, including South Plains Hunger Solutions and the Texas Hunger Initiative.
“The GRUB farm connects with at-risk youth and pays these teenagers to help in their farm and community gardens,” Washington said. “So, I really got to connect with them and they put it in perspective for me a lot of these things I take for granted, like knowing what a cantaloupe or zucchini is. Being able to introduce them to healthy foods and teaching them life skills such as cooking was really great for me.”
The Transformative Undergraduate Experiences Office, the Office of Responsible Research, the STEM Center for Outreach, Research & Education and the University Coaching & Student Achievement Office are all partners to ensure the success of Nutrition BEST. Moreover, an external evaluator from the University of Tennessee Extension is conducting quantitative and qualitative assessments of the program for continuous feedback and improvements of student experiences and learning.
The students coordinate their community visits through Alex Herrera Scoggin, program manager of the ORI. They also work with mentors in research to gain hands-on experience in their potential career path. Texas Tech faculty mentors include Naïma Moustaïd-Moussa, a Horn Distinguished Professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences; Wilna Oldewage-Theron, a professor of nutritional sciences; Yujiao Zu, research assistant professor of nutritional sciences; Catherine Simpson, an associate professor of sustainable/urban horticulture; Leslie Thompson, a professor of food science and safety; Kembra Albracht-Schulte, an assistant professor of kinesiology; and Oak-Hee Park, a research assistant professor with the College of Human Sciences.
Collaborating mentors include Hanna Moussa, an associate professor of practice in the Department of Physics and Astronomy; and Halima Bensmail, a principal scientist with Qatar Computing Research Institute and a joint full professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University.
One of Washington's mentors was Moustaïd-Moussa, director of ORI, associate vice president for research, and the principal investigator/project director on the grant.
“Many of these students have just taken classes and haven't had research experiences or community engagement exposure,” Moustaïd-Moussa said, “so it was very interesting for them to learn how to grow fruits and vegetables, how to teach nutrition education, how to work with underserved populations, and just the basics of nutrition and cooking. Those are real experiences the students say have been very impactful for them.”
Moustaïd-Moussa felt particularly proud when Washington shared a presentation titled “The Impact of Nutrition-Related Education in Under-Resourced Communities in Lubbock” at the Transformative Undergraduate Experiences Symposium in 2022. She was awarded eighth place as a symposium outstanding presenter out of more than 100 competitors.
“It's not just the research experiences they gain, or the responsible conduct for research (RCR) training they receive,” Moustaïd-Moussa said. “The students learn presentation skills by presenting orally or through poster presentations at conferences. Dr. Marianne Evola, director of responsible research, provides training in RCR and designed workshops for our students to learn team building and professional leadership skills.
“We also organize workshops on how to apply and prepare for graduate school. Students even get to learn from community educators, like farmers and Extension leaders, about community-based career opportunities.”
Gretchen Plocek, who plans to graduate spring 2024 with a bachelor's degree in biology and a minor in plant and soil science, is thankful for the in-depth training she received through Nutrition BEST as part of the first cohort.
While she is not a nutritional scientist and has never taken any related classes, Plocek was mentored by Simpson and became surprised by the amount of overlap nutrition has with horticulture. Ploceck was able to get her research on the effects of salinity on broccoli and purslane microgreens published in a peer reviewed journal and also presented the topic at a national conference.
Alongside those opportunities, she is impressed by the scientific ethics she learned during the Nutrition BEST program.
“Scientific ethics are something I can never forget and will always use in my line of work, as well as how to do research projects from a simple lightbulb idea,” she said. “On more of a shorter timeline, the information I learned about applying to graduate school is something I will use very soon. The application process and finding a mentor is no longer so daunting of a task.”
Hannah Petry is a recent example of a Nutrition BEST student who successfully enrolled in graduate school afterward. She is in her second year of the nutrition doctoral program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Petry was the first student to participate in the AgriLife internship, in which she was able to engage in community outreach programs with the Slaton Senior Citizen Center. The interactions she had there while sharing physical activity and nutrition tips are experiences she considers invaluable.
“It's really nice to see how different areas of nutrition and agriculture translate into the community,” she said. “College is definitely a time to figure out what your passion is, so I highly recommend the Nutrition BEST program because it gets you a wide variety of experience throughout related fields to figure out what you really like and what you're good at.”