Diane McKay is an Assistant Professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She graduated from Arts & Sciences with an MS in Biological Sciences, and from the School of Nutrition with an MS in Nutrition Communications and a PhD in Human Nutrition. She is also a Fellow of the American College of Nutrition and a member of the American Society for Nutrition. At the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University Dr. McKay investigates the role of nutrients in health promotion, particularly in older adults, and has studied the effects of multivitamins and antioxidant-rich foods and beverages, including hibiscus tea, walnuts, cranberry juice, eggs, oats, and barley.
Could you tell me a bit about your Friedman experience?
At the time I started, I was working in the biotech industry and was ready for a career change. I looked into the programs available at Tufts School of Nutrition (as it was called back then) and called Lynne Ausman to discuss my options. She suggested I take her course, general nutrition, the course I currently teach and Jerry Dallal’s statistics course. At the time, each one met for one, three hour class per week so I managed to take off a few afternoons from work for the first month until I realized I was ready to quit my job and devote more time to grad school. I applied for the Ph.D. program because I already had a master’s in biochemistry, but was told I needed more background in nutrition before they could let me into the Ph.D. program. So I looked more closely at the master’s degree programs available and it just so happened that this new program in Nutrition Communications was being offered at a 50% tuition discount. I figured it was a great way to get all my core courses out of the way plus a great opportunity to take some other interesting courses I wouldn’t have considered as a science person. It has definitely paid off for me in the long run In that it helped me to be a better writer and communicator with regard to both my teaching and research. When I took Lynne’s class many years ago we were in a three-family house on the Medford campus, and it was 30 or 40 people in what had been the living room/dining room area . We’d take breaks on the front porch or gather in the kitchen, and the student lounge was downstairs in the finished basement It was a fun setup; this was well before the Jaharis building was built. During that time, most of the nutrition students’ classes were split between Boston and Medford.
Now you’re a professor of the Friedman School! How does it feel to be on the other side?
It’s where I wanted to be after taking Lynn’s course. I found myself just really wanting to be able to teach that course, and now I do. My first opportunity to teach pretty much fell into my lap. I got to know Johanna Dwyer, the director of the Frances Stern Center, who was the thesis advisor to a fellow student in my qualifying exam study group and she asked us to co-teach the biochemistry class for her dietitians. Even with two people, it was a lot of work, but I liked it a lot and wanted to do it again. So, when Jeanne Goldberg and Chris Economos were looking for someone to take over Chris’s undergraduate elective course, Nutrition 101, during the summer session, I was thrilled when they called. That was 10 years ago, in summer of 2002, and I’ve been teaching that course twice every summer ever since. Over the years I’ve been asked to teach other courses as well, and now I teach six classes in total, most of which are in the online format. I’m thrilled to be the first person to teach a completely online course through the Friedman School.
Can you tell me about the project you’re currently working on?
I saw the advantage of converting some of my courses to the online format and two summers ago I approached the manager of the Medofrd Summer Session, Sean Recroft, to see if he would be amenable to letting me teach one of my summer NUTR 101 courses online. At the time I was giving three and half hour lectures four nights a week and I found myself feeling burned out sooner each year. Last year, the online version of NUTR101A was offered as a pilot, and this past summer the pilot was expanded to include 3 additional online courses. What am I working on now? I was just appointed as the Program Director for the new online graduate certificate program that the Freidman School is offering to working professionals. It’s primarily geared to those who are unable to take time out (or quit their job) to get a degree but want to advance their career. Basically, they take three courses over a one-year period through our program and can earn a a certificate in a specific area of concentration. We just started the second year and I’m working on expanding the number of different certificates and courses we can offer. I call it a taste of Friedman. Nutrition for communications professionals is one track. A new track for next year is evidence based humanitarian assistance. I’m also working with other faculty members to develop a track in “sustainability” for people in food-related companies and organizations who are responsible for implementing sustainability measures.
Any crazy experiences from your work in the field?
Recruiting people for my studies is always an adventure. The latest? — one of my studies has been delayed because we had some difficulty getting a few kilos of oat bran across the Canadian-American border. We had done a pilot study a couple of years ago with the same material and have been working with a cereal chemist in Canada who developed a strain of oats that can produce a high amount of this phytochemical that’s unique to oats. His facility can’t do human testing, so we set up a collaboration. We initially looked at the bioavailability of this phytochemical in older adults at the HNRCA and when we went to scale up the experiment to look at the effects of a chronic, daily dose for a couple of months we needed a much larger batch of the oat bran. It took our collaborators a while to grind and mill enough materials for us to use, but when we tried to get it over the border the regulations had changed because of extra security measures. We spent maybe three or four months trying to figure out how to get it over the border. We considered driving across the border, flying, walking…eventually our collaborator contacted the Canadian consulate and they were going to have an attaché transport it, but that was not permitted either. We finally slogged through the FDA website and managed to complete proper paperwork and found a courier that dealt with international shipments to help us for a few thousand dollars, of course.
What advice do you have for Friedman students who might be looking to go into a career in your area?
Keep your eyes and ears open, and remain open to new experiences, especially ones that will help build your network of contacts . Try not to make any enemies because the nutrition community is pretty small, and you never know if the person sitting next to you in one class might be in a position to hire you in a year or two. Or whether you’re the one they think of when a project is dropped in their lap and they need help.
I can attest to the fact that you’re very good at your job. What prior experiences have helped you prepare for the work you’re doing now?
Acting. I did plays in high school, college, and community theater, and went on auditions for some other larger roles, but realized it wasn’t going to keep a roof over my head. So, instead, I relied on my science background and focused on my career in the biotechnology industry for 12 years before deciding to go back to grad school for my PhD in nutrition. The combination of science and performance helps me to this very day.
*This interview was edited and condensed.
Kiley Albrecht is a second-year BMN student and hopes to one day be a professor himself. He’s interested in the power of nutrition as a means of preventive medicine and he loves shakes and smoothies!