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Lander graduate's job is helping Americans choose healthy eating

January 12, 2009
Kellie O'Connell
Lander graduate Dr. Kellie O'Connell is a dietitian and nutritionist for the federal program that is responsible for establishing and updating dietary guidelines such as the pyramid food guidance system.
Kellie O'Connell had planned to become a medical doctor so she could help people understand and manage their health. But a semester of study abroad led the Lander University biology major to a different career choice, though she is still helping people manage their health.

The 1999 Lander graduate is a registered dietitian and has been a nutritionist with the United States Department of Agriculture in Alexandria, Va., since 2005. Her job is persuading people that what they eat affects their health.

The Rock Hill native came to Lander as a business major with a minor in dance. "Lander was the only school I applied to," she said. "After visiting the university, I decided the campus environment would permit me to balance my interests in academics, athletics and dance. And I would be close to home."

She was a cheerleader in her freshman year, then a member of the Lander Dancers for three years. "I hoped to open a dance school," she said.

When she became interested in medicine, she switched her major from business to biology. Because she was taking pre-med courses and studying dance, one of her professors christened her "The Dancing Doctor."

During her junior year, O'Connell was accepted into Lander's Honors International Program, and spent a semester at the University of Plymouth in England. While there, she realized her interest in health was less about general medicine and more about human metabolism and nutrition.

After graduating from Lander, O'Connell taught sixth-grade science for a year in North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, where she was nominated for the district's "New Teacher of the Year" award.

When she enrolled in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2001, she found her Lander research experience gave her a head start toward completing academic requirements for a doctorate in nutrition.

In her senior year at Lander, O'Connell was a research assistant to Dr. Leonard Lundquist, who, at the time, was chair of the Biology Department. They collaborated on research to create a cryo-preservation method for storing adrenal glands harvested from rabbits. Their project was the subject of a presentation O'Connell made to the South Carolina Academy of Science.

Lundquist, who was also O'Connell's adviser, said she was able to include the research project and presentation on her resume, which gave her an advantage when applying for admission to graduate school.

While he was teaching at Lander, Lundquist included undergraduate participation in his research grant applications because, he said, the experience provides hands-on learning for students planning to enter a research-based field.

O'Connell said because of her experience as Lundquist's assistant, UNCG allowed her to begin working sooner on her postgraduate research requirements. She chose to study nutrition convinced that it offered more career opportunities, but she was also motivated by personal experience. "Nutrition was an issue for me because I was overweight in elementary school," she said. "When I was in seventh grade, I dieted, lost weight and became more athletic." In high school, she continued healthy eating under the supervision of a registered dietitian.

At UNCG, she received the 2004 Graduate Student of the Year award for her dissertation on school system interventions to improve food choices and prevent obesity among middle school students. Research shows that obesity-related complications are the second leading cause of death in the U.S., and that 15 percent of young people ages 12 to 19 are obese, a condition likely to carry over into adulthood.

Nutrition is an important puzzle piece in the obesity epidemic, and O'Connell's research showed that changes to cafeteria food choices coupled with nutrition education can improve healthy food choices made by middle school children, such as eating more vegetables.

"People are always frustrated about weight," she said. "It is important to understand that managing a healthy weight includes diet and activity. The science tells us we have to make lifestyle changes."

After receiving her Ph.D., O'Connell worked at Duke University's Diet and Fitness Center, a residential obesity treatment facility. Later, she joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, where she specializes in national nutrition policies and programs to encourage healthy eating.

The center is responsible for many federal projects such as the MyPyramid Food Guidance System and the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans." It provides recommendations for food choices and physical activity to help reduce the risk of chronic disease and is the basis for all federal nutrition programs. She is a member of the management team coordinating deliberations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, who will write an advisory report for the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Following the committee's work, O'Connell will be on a team helping develop the 2010 release of the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans."

O'Connell has made presentations on nutrition and dietary guidelines to Russia's Institute of Nutrition and to Chinese health and nutrition magazine editors. She also contributed to a nine-part film series on nutrition and physical activity aired by South Carolina Educational Television in 2006, and she continues to collaborate with her home state to produce nutrition education.

Despite O'Connell's busy schedule, she still finds time for dancing, her favorite physical activity. She taught dance for a year at the University City YMCA in Charlotte and is now a member of a contemporary dance troupe called J Ruhl Dance Collaborations Company in Alexandria. She continues to support her alma mater and serves as secretary of Lander's Young Alumni Association.

When asked if she has second thoughts about not pursuing a career in medicine, she said, "Although doctors and dietitians both get to work with their patients one-on-one, I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to also reach a larger audience - Americans - through work at the USDA."