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Learning the Nitty-Gritty of Muscle and Nutrition

Nutrition sciences alumna Rachel Kelley

Rachel Kelley found a new friend in Belize.

July 5, 2017

The best advice CNHP alumna Rachel Kelley received as an undergraduate was to pursue her interest in nutrition in a way that would result in her having registered dietitian credentials. This came from her professors at the College of William and Mary where she studied biology knowing that with those credentials, more doors would be open to her. William and Mary didn’t have a nutrition program and that spark had been ignited between her senior seminar and her desire to find ways her dad could manage his Type 2 diabetes through nutritional interventions. “I learned about how nutrition could change gene expression in the body. And between that and my father’s disease, I took an interest, specifically in vitamin A’s effect on the immune system,” Kelley said.
Heeding that advice, she looked for a place to get her master’s degree and Drexel University wound up being the perfect place for Kelley as it’s one of only a few graduate programs that allows students to continue course work in nutrition while also preparing to qualify for a dietetic internship. While at Drexel, Kelley had the guidance of Stella Lucia Volpe, PhD who quickly learned of her interest in research and additional training. “‘Well, come to my lab group! We’d love to have you get involved.’ is what she said to me almost immediately,” recalls Kelley. She recollects learning about the equipment and being a volunteer, but then Volpe acknowledged her interest by offering her a graduate assistant position. “She was so welcoming even though I was inexperienced. She gave me an opportunity and it’s only because she welcomed me in her lab and allowed me to craft a research project with her that I’m in a PhD program now.” Volpe’s esteem for Kelley is evident. “She is humble, has a great work ethic and is intelligent,” she shared. Volpe counted on that while Kelley ran her lab. “We had trouble with the metabolic cart, a fairly new piece of equipment at the time. Rachel was often on the phone with the company’s technicians who kept sending us replacement parts,” mentioned Volpe. “Because she hadn’t been asked to return the faulty parts, the lab was sent a bill for over $10,000. Rachel, being the kind and responsible person she is, had taken care of it citing that I had enough to worry about before I ever had time to find out and be concerned.” 
One of the things Kelley most appreciated about being at Drexel was its location. “I was able to volunteer with the Philadelphia School District and teach about nutrition in elementary school,” she related. She had classmates who worked at MANNA and food banks around the city. “It’s truly unique that we get to experience community nutrition, clinical nutrition and even pediatric nutrition at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. It’s much harder to get that kind of experience when you’re not as connected as Drexel is,” Kelley said. All this involvement plus being exposed to many different clinical perspectives at Drexel, specifically because the nutrition sciences program is housed in the College of Nursing and Health Professions, better prepared her for the dietetic internship she would eventually get. Classmates and professors from around the College, regardless of their membership in the nutrition program, participated in interprofessional practice, education and research. “Because I was trained at Drexel, I think about how this is going to affect the patient or if the patient will really relate to and be enthusiastic about a specific intervention,” Kelley remarked. CNHP helped her fulfill clinical criteria and also gain research experience with Dr. Volpe in her exercise physiology and nutrition lab. And as she studied nutritional counseling and nutrition prescription in critical care patients, Kelley also worked on her master’s thesis evaluating prediction equations for resting metabolic rate in an athletic population. “The combination of doing both research and clinical preparation, unique to Drexel, is the main reason I was accepted at the dietetic internship at the National Institutes of Health,” she added.
Kelley’s time at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) included continued exposure to both clinical and research nutrition and making interdisciplinary rounds on patients — something she already knew how to do —  with doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and physical therapists all of whom had reason to want a registered dietician’s input. “Across all disciplines there are a bunch of shared goals,” she described. “One of those goals was the preservation of lean mass or muscle mass for all patients. The more I learned the more I realized that the functional aspect of preserving muscle mass was only one part of the story,” Kelley added. It turns out there is so much about muscle physiology she wanted to know not the least of which is why certain nutritional and exercise interventions help more than others. 
If she could learn more about why those worked better than others, perhaps she could use the same rationale with drugs or other medical interventions. And that’s what lead Kelley to the muscle biology lab at the University of Florida where she is working on a doctoral degree in exercise physiology. “I’m learning the nitty-gritty of muscle. If I know that, I can tailor more studies with either nutrition or exercise interventions to kind of hit those targets and help patients preserve muscle mass,” she disclosed. 
Kelley’s future plans as a researcher are still in the making. She hopes to use her knowledge and understanding of general physiology to become an independent investigator, specifically evaluating the relationship between nutrition, metabolism and muscle function. “I know I’m much more basic science and molecular physiology oriented than a lot of trained clinicians. As an undergraduate, I wanted to understand why certain genes were expressed when certain components were in a diet, I thought I would be even more so because that would require almost cellular level studies — a lot more animal work,” Kelley pointed out. As she progressed with her master’s program with Volpe, she learned a lot about being a scientist with human participants in human studies but always figured she’s find her way back to cellular and animal work. However, Kelley surprised herself. “I discovered that I’m much more interested in the translational aspect and the fact that these animals, they’re not little people,” she marveled. “They’re different species and we can do all the testing we want, but regardless of the effects we see in the animal, we still have to see what happens when we talk about human patients.” Kelley joked that as an undergraduate, she thought she’d be perfectly content to forget about human patients and continue working with animal models and cells. But that was before she realized she wouldn’t be happy only with that because she wants to know the full story. That attitude, as a scientist, will serve her well. Whether Kelley decides to secure a nutrition-focused post-doctoral fellowship, teach undergraduates research skills, general nutrition and metabolism or apply for her own grants to get that independent training while making a contribution to the literature about the impact nutrition has on women’s health, you can bet that her education and experience at Drexel will have played a huge role in it. “I’ve gotten some of my best training here,” she articulated. “It’s a very hard environment. Part of me wants to end up back with Dr. Volpe in my later career, but I just know I want to be the kind of researcher that inspires good science but also inspires someone to be a good person. And that’s what Dr. Volpe taught me.”

By Roberta S. Perry