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A full plate

May 2, 2005
By Melissa Rake Calhoun

Megan Kinnison cooks nearly everything from scratch. It takes her about three hours on a Saturday to prepare three-squares-a-day for the week. She always bakes a loaf of bread, but depending on her mood, she may roast a turkey or ham and throw together a black bean dish or vegetable medley.

Megan Kinnison"I don't follow recipes," says Kinnison, BSHCS '04. "For me, it's about finding flavors that complement each other, knowing what ingredients you need to get the right texture."

Culinary school would have been a natural choice for the Kenton, Ohio, native, whose passion for cooking developed before she could reach the kitchen counter. But as an Ohio University undergraduate, she found fascination in the science behind food - how and why different foods affect our health.

Now, she's satisfied leaving her savory experiments for weekends. After graduating last year with a double major in dietetics and food service management, she landed a competitive internship with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

The 10-month internship, which ends in July, takes her though rigorous clinical rotations that focus on different medical specialties - such as cardiology, endocrinology, pediatrics, and HIV and infectious diseases - as well as food service stints during which she helps develop menus and analyze the quality of patients' food. She also has been involved in research activities as well as nutrition education in local schools.

Clinical rotations are the most intense, Kinnison says, because some patients' lives literally depend on what they eat. For example, she's counseled a patient with lipoprotein lipase deficiency, a genetic disorder that prevents the body from breaking down fat molecules. "We ended up recommending a diet of only 10 grams of fat a day, if you can imagine that," she says. "If people with this disorder have too much fat, they develop pancreatitis and can die."

Kinnison also worked with a man receiving a kidney transplant and his brother, the donor. Transplant patients must follow strict diets to ensure a healthy recovery, she says. "It was important for them to consume enough calories and proteins so they could heal, and we had to ensure that everything was very clean and thoroughly cooked, because transplant patients are especially at risk for food-borne illnesses."

Altogether different diet plans are developed for patients who cannot ingest food orally and require tube feedings, Kinnison says. "We've learned how to calculate tube feedings, where every little change can make a difference in a patient's health and recovery."

Kinnison is carefully absorbing every experience, she says, because she considers herself fortunate to have earned the internship. The 23-year-old is the youngest of the NIH program's four interns and the only one who's not currently pursuing a master's or doctorate.

Ohio University Assistant Professor Diana Manchester, who taught and counseled Kinnison during her undergraduate years, feels sure the NIH was impressed with her former student's ambitious combination of clinical, research and leadership experiences. "In many ways, Megan was an empty vessel waiting to be filled," says Manchester, who teaches food, nutrition and hospitality. "Her passion, her drive, her thirst for knowledge and experience are remarkable. And she was up for learning anything, whether traditional or adventurous."

As an undergraduate, Kinnison teamed up with Human and Consumer Sciences professors on nutrition-related research projects and community health initiatives. Her most prominent campus leadership roles were as president of the Ohio University Hospitality Association, treasurer and co-chair of the College of Health and Human Services' Student Advisory Council, student representative for the college's curriculum and scholarship committees and vice president of the Golden Key International Honor Society. What's more, Kinnison worked every summer at the Blanchard Valley Regional Health Center, where she learned to work one-on-one explaining nutrition and diet issues to patients.

After her internship ends this summer, Kinnison will be eligible to take an exam to become a registered dietitian. Although she's not sure whether she wants to focus on management, nutrition policy or clinical research, she knows she eventually wants to earn advanced degrees and teach at the college level. "I had such a great experience with my professors that I want to give back in some way," Kinnison says.

In the meantime, she's doing all she can to maximize her internship opportunity. After doing daily clinical rotations from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., she works another three and a half hours as an NIH health technician.

"I sleep well at night," she says.

Vision Ohio

This story illustrates how the spirit of free inquiry, leadership and personal interaction between faculty and students enhances the educational experience.

Melissa Rake Calhoun is a freelance writer living in Orlando, Fla. This story originally appeared in the spring 2005 Ohio Today alumni magazine. 

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