Here we have a guest post by Bonnie Lau, who became qualified as an Accredited Practising Dietitian in 2012. She graduated from Queensland with a BHlthSc(Nutr&Diet) and a university medal. Bonnie is looking forward to starting a job as a clinical dietitian in Singapore General Hospital in early 2013. You can check out Bonnie’s blog: http://tenthousandtastebuds.wordpress.com/
“I think back to that time when I first started dietetics, that time as a naïve freshman without any idea about the adventures I was setting myself up for. I could never have imagined I would have been able to experience everything I did during my four year dietetics degree. Having just graduated, I want to share my experiences and valuable lessons I learned along the way.
It all started when I took a ‘gap semester’ after studying landscape architecture straight out of high school. It was the wrong decision and I spent the next half year seeking different options for my future. Health stood out to me as a rewarding field where I’d be able to combine my love of science and helping people in my daily life. As an ardent foodie, I knew dietetics was the career that I’d be most passionate in.
The first year involved the basic sciences (so lots of chemistry, anatomy, and physiology), public health, and introductory nutrition studies. Chemistry is actually a prerequisite for the course, which I didn’t study in high school, so I did a lot of self-study during the gap semester and had no major problems with catching up.
Second year included biochemistry, more physiology, epidemiology and statistics, counseling, and more advanced food and nutrition subjects. Biochemistry was challenging but enjoyable; it was interesting to see how the different foods were broken down in the body and interplayed in different systems. But be prepared for a lot of memorizing and drawing lots of arrows from one molecule to the next… I remember having to use many mnemonic devices just to get by the exams (e.g. “Ordinarily, Careless Crappers Are Also Frivolous About Urination” for the urea cycle!)! We learned about food science (including fascinating facts like why broccoli becomes dull after overcooking) and nutrition science (where we learn about all the vitamins, minerals and macronutrients, and got to analyze our own diets) I still remember some really quirky video links my lecturer gave us to consolidate our knowledge (the original one has been made private, but here’s another cute song on B6: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBcjxR8RBbA).
Sometimes I’d get frustrated that there wasn’t much of a nutrition focus during the first 2 years, but in hindsight I am glad that I did gain a broad and diverse knowledge base so that my mind wasn’t purely fixed in food and nutrition (and as I learned later, dietetics is a very holistic profession that considers all aspects of a client).
Third year got more interesting and practical, with most subjects being nutrition and dietetic-related, and fewer non-nutrition subjects (health education and statistics). Medical nutrition therapy was my favourite subject in the course, as it encompassed nearly everything we had learned earlier (combining science, nutrition and holistic healthcare) and covered essentially all the clinical areas a clinical dietitian would come across. That is, nutritional management across the major diseases including diabetes, chronic kidney disease, oncology, liver disease, and many others. Advanced food studies was also really fascinating and provided a more practical outlook on how to change people’s diets. We got to ‘experiment’ on ourselves, like making healthier versions of recipes, trying out weird and wonderful things like infant formula and cream made from cashews, or even reflecting on measuring our blood glucose over 3 days while on a diet for diabetes (which was intense stuff for me as I have a needle phobia!). The most nerve-racking part of third year was the interview exams, where we talked to actors pretending to be patients; it was a pass/fail assessment that was the gatekeeper to our final year. We also studied community & public health nutrition and food service management, the two other big areas in dietetics.
The most rewarding, and of course challenging, year for me was final year, where we got to put all the theory into practice. I dare say that I got the most out of my degree in my final year than all the previous three combined, because I really pushed myself to go out of my comfort zone and get diverse experiences.
My first placement was food service management, where I audited the texture modified menu for a private hospital in Brisbane. Texture modified food is for people who have difficulty swallowing, such as after stroke. I learned a lot about working independently and how to work harmoniously with foodservice staff.
My second placement was clinical, where I went to Auckland City Hospital in NZ and managed a variety of patients, from oncology, to obesity, to renal disease. It was there I confirmed my passion in interacting with patients and helping them achieve optimal health through nutrition, and particularly ignited my interest in renal nutrition. It was also the first time I lived away from home for an extended period and I think I grew a lot from the experience, learning to juggle full-time work with assignments in a foreign environment (Auckland is a beautiful city though!).
My third placement was in a community health centre, where I worked with other dietetics students and a nutritionist to conduct a project on integrating environmental sustainability into private practitioners’ practice. We held interviews and an online survey with dietitians and wrote a report on this exciting innovation.
I also elected to do the research stream and was lucky to be one of the students who got to travel to Vietnam (Can Tho and Ho Chi Minh City). My research project involved measuring the prevalence of malnutrition and its association with risk factors in two Vietnam hospitals, where I got to see almost all the all stages of a project: planning, data collection and analysis, and writing a report and presenting it to my colleagues at QUT. It was an amazing experience to open my eyes to a different culture and way of doing things (there are no ‘dietitians’ in Vietnam), and I absolutely loved the food there too! I am currently working with the other researchers to eventually progress this research to produce a conference presentation and journal article.
It was only in my final year that I realised that GPA really isn’t that important. What’s more important is the process of learning and new experiences you gain which don’t have any quantitative number but is just as enriching. During that year, I really went out on a limb to be bold and not afraid to make mistakes: I did a summer research scholarship at UQ, was a volunteer for NEMO (Nutrition Education Materials Online, Queensland Health’s nutrition resource website), joined the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) as a student member and subscribed to the Interest Groups, participated in a career mentor scheme (and volunteered for several research projects), submitted abstracts for the 2013 DAA National Conference, attended networking events in Auckland and Brisbane, and went to the International Congress of Dietetics in Sydney (which my colleague, Holly, has eloquently written about!). If only I had stretched myself to get new experiences starting from first year; I guess you only learn from your mistakes!
The dietetics profession is a small and very close-knit community. Throughout this journey, I am grateful for the many cherished friendships I made and valuable lessons from supervisors and mentors who supported me to this day. I’d like to wish all current dietetic students the best of luck as they walk their own journeys through this exciting field. J
Some of the things I’d suggest for current dietetics students:
1. Get involved with the profession, get out of your comfort zone and grasp opportunities that come your way. If you’re passionate about your career, show it! Volunteer or get work experience in the next dietetics/nutrition event, attend conferences or professional development, or even volunteer for a healthcare facility to get a better understanding of the multidisciplinary team and different types of clients.
2. Start to develop your ‘bedside manner’, and it doesn’t need to be with patients. Talk to your family and friends to answer their nutrition questions, and it will become second nature to explain the ‘diet-disease relationship’ stories that you can tailor for your future patients. It will also keep you updated on the latest nutrition fads and understand a layman’s perspective when you might be dispelling any ‘myths’.
3. Join DAA or Nutrition Australia as a student member, and subscribe to the Interest Groups to keep updated and get a feel for what dietitians experience in their practice.
4. Learn to cook, browse through the supermarket regularly to look out for new products and expose yourself to a range of cuisines. It really helps you connect and give useful advice to your clients from all backgrounds.
5. Know where to go for reliable and evidence-based information. Keep updated on DAA’s Evidence-based Practice Guidelines, Australian dietary guidelines, Food Standards Australia NZ (FSANZ), and reputable dietetic journals.”
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