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Researching the Tie Between Vegetarian Diets & Diabetes — Rachel's PhD Journey

Posted by Shelly Quance on 1/30/20 7:08 AM

  January 30, 2020    


Food security. Access to proper nutrition. Education about healthy diets.

There are many public health issues in our nation and in the state of West Virginia specifically, but at West Virginia University, we're dedicated to preparing the public health professionals of the future who can make a tangible difference the community.

We talked with Rachel, a PhD student in the School of Public Health, and learned about her journey to bring awareness to the benefits of a vegetarian diet and the association between diet and diabetes.

Interested in obtaining a PhD? You may qualify to attend WVU's Coloquium 2020,  a free, 3-day event for high-achieving, underrepresented aspiring doctoal  candidates. Click here to apply!

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

My name is Rachel Wattick. I am 23 years old, and I am from Canonsburg, PA, which is a little bit south of Pittsburgh. I completed my bachelor's in Human Nutrition and Foods in May 2018 here at WVU. I started my current program in Fall 2018 - I'm pursuing a graduate degree in Public Health, a PhD, in fact.

What's the title of your current PhD program?

I am obtaining my PhD in Social and Behavioral Sciences through the School of Public Health.

Did you participate in a graduate assistantship?

Yes, I currently am a involved in a graduate assistantship for the School of Public Health for this first year of my program. For this, I am a TA for a couple of undergraduate courses, such as Social Determinants of Health and Social and Behavioral Science and Practice, and I help with grading and creating content. I also am doing three, eight-week research rotations with public health faculty to gain diverse experience.

I am also a graduate research assistant in the Lifestyle Intervention Research Lab under Dr. Melissa Olfert. This is where I will complete my dissertation research. For this, I am involved in each stage of the research process, from idea generation to data analysis to manuscript writing.

Tell me about your work that’s related to the Blue Zones Project?

A lot of my research involves the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle and its benefits for both physical and mental health. This diet is common in two of the Blue Zones, Sardinia and Ikaria. I want to focus on how we can make these diets accessible to people in West Virginia. I think that a lot of people are unaware of what this diet is, but it isn’t really a diet, it’s more of a lifestyle with an emphasis on sharing meals, getting physical activity through daily routine, growing food and cooking if you can in addition to a variety of foods that are highly palatable and protective of disease: olive oil, seafood, legumes, beans, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables.

I also think that people don’t know where to get these foods or how to prepare them. If we can get people to see the importance of not only the foods you eat but how you eat them, that this isn’t a restrictive way of eating, and if we can improve access to these foods via location and costs, we can really improve health outcomes, both mentally and physically.

Tell me a little bit about the work you’re investigating that’s related to the association between vegetarian diets and diabetes outcomes.

We conducted a literature review of studies looking at if vegetarian diets can protect from or treat type 2 diabetes. What is key in the most recent research is that it distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy vegetarian diets. This is really important because sometimes people make a switch to vegetarian diets and rather than it being more balanced, it is high in starchy foods and other unhealthy things. High starch and carbs is detrimental to diabetes prevention or management. So, the key is replacing these unhealthy proteins, such as red meat, with plant proteins such as lentils and rice because these plant proteins also contain soluble fiber, which can bind glucose in the bloodstream and slow absorption, which helps with diabetes prevention or management.

We also see that across the spectrum of diets — from omnivorous, then semi-vegetarian, then pesco-vegetarian, then lacto-ovo-vegetarian, and finally vegan  as we move down these diets in terms of limiting animal foods, they get more and more protective and therapeutic. However, it is really important to meet people where they are at, so getting someone to eat meat just once a week instead of every day can be helpful.

Tell me about one faculty member who really made a difference in your education at WVU as a PhD student.

This is difficult because I have had a lot of great mentors so far. But I would say that I would not be in my field if I hadn’t had my study abroad experience under Professor Daniel Brewster where I saw the impact of a sociological understanding on health, and I wouldn’t be obtaining my PhD if I hadn’t had the opportunities for rich research experience in undergrad from Dr. Melissa Olfert.

Why do you think pursuing an advanced degree is important for people who want to promote real innovation in your field?

I think that to get a really deep and rich understanding of the complexities of society and human behavior and policy or whatever area interests you, you need to have this hands-on education from experts in the field. I also think that it is rare for an undergraduate degree to completely prepare you for what area you want to focus on in this field because public health is so diverse and there are so many paths to go down.

But through taking additional classes that provide a deeper level of knowledge and having many applied experiences, you can really determine what you want to address in your career.

What’s your favorite thing about WVU?

I love Morgantown, really. I think that its charm is something you slowly discover as you spend more time here. I like that I can sit down next to a stranger at a restaurant and you end up talking to them for hours and they have the most interesting story.

Everyone is so friendly and has such a diverse background, so you really learn a lot from the people. I love the pride for the state and for the school and the amount of care for one another. I have met so many wonderful students and faculty and staff here, it really is a unique place.

West Virginia University is here to help you succeed.

Wherever you see yourself, WVU is here to help you become exceptional. If you're interested in joining our community, we hope you'll request more information today!

Also, if you have questions about the below topics, we have resources to help you!

 As an aspiring leader in the field of public health, it's important to choose the right graduate program for you. We invite you to explore our newest interactive resource — Impacting Social Change in the Field of Public Health!

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Topics: Student and Alumni Testimonials

Posted by Shelly Quance

Shelly Quance has spent almost 20 years working in higher education marketing communications. She currently serves as Director for West Virginia University’s Office of Graduate Admissions and Recruitment where she works collaboratively with College leadership to develop, implement, and evaluate creative and effective comprehensive communication and marketing plans to increase graduate student enrollment.


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Deciding what graduate school to attend can be daunting at times, and navigating the admissions process can be that much more difficult. We hope to make the journey from considering graduate school to enrolling in a graduate program easier by publishing content that will be helpful to you as you discern if, when, and where, to pursue your next degree.

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