Kate Killion came to UMass Lowell for her master’s degree because it’s the only university in New England that offers a dietetics degree within the Department of Public Health.
She’d earned a bachelor’s degree in health science at Boston University, and was unsure whether she wanted to pursue dietetics or public health. So she opted for UML’s program, which is preparing her for the licensing exam to become a registered dietitian while offering her a broader public health perspective.
“Even if I’m working one-on-one with a patient, I need to understand food insecurity, housing, transportation and access to grocery stores,” she says. “The UMass Lowell program really emphasizes the public health influences, even on individual health.”
As part of the program and to qualify for the Registered Dietitian Exam, Killion must complete 1,200 hours of practical experiences, both clinical and community-based. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every single experience – and shown the value of the public health side of her training, she says.
During summer 2020, Killion worked with the town health departments in Hudson and Sudbury as part of the Massachusetts COVID-19 Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps. In the fall, she began holding online, individual nutrition counseling sessions with the university’s ROTC cadets and Division I athletes.
She also did a food service management internship for credit in the Waltham, Massachusetts, public schools – both in the cafeterias, which serve the few high-needs students who come to school most days, and by helping with weekly, bulk distribution of breakfasts and lunches for families whose children are studying online at home because of COVID-19.
“They have a phenomenal nutrition program,” she says. “It’s really great for families who rely on low-cost meals in the schools.”
In addition to her practical experiences, Killion works as a research assistant for Asst. Prof. Serena Rajabiun on a project involving community health workers and HIV treatment in the Memphis, Tennessee, area. Rajabiun also agreed to serve as Killion’s advisor for a directed study on symptoms of eating disorders among different racial and ethnic groups during the pandemic.
“All of the literature basically says that people are reporting increased symptoms, not only among people with diagnosed eating disorders but among those without a formal diagnosis,” she says. “With Zoom, when you’re looking at yourself all the time, it’s not great if you already have body image issues.”
During her final semester, Killion will intern full-time in a hospital or other health care facility, providing individual nutrition counseling to patients with chronic health conditions such as heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes. Every experience she’s gotten through UMass Lowell is teaching her more, she says.
“The amount of time you spend working on professional tasks and training for a future career, it’s incredible – and it’s more fun than sitting in class all day,” she says.
One of those experiences landed her a part-time job. The Hudson Health Department appreciated her volunteer work over the summer and asked her to return as paid staff as COVID-19 cases surged in late fall 2020.
She’s living at home with her parents in Westford, Massachusetts, to save money, and is grateful for a scholarship she received from the Massachusetts chapter of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She applied for it at the urging of Assoc. Teaching Prof. Renee Barrile in the Department of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences, who teaches Advanced Clinical Nutrition to dietetics students.
Now, thanks to her research experience with Rajabiun, Killion is setting her sights even higher: She’s applying to doctoral programs in public health and nutrition, including UML’s Doctor of Science in Epidemiology. She hopes to do research at the intersection of dietetics and public health for a nonprofit, a government agency or a university.
“I’d love to be involved in projects addressing food insecurity and other social determinants of health,” she says. “I’m interested in how we can improve nutrition-related health outcomes in marginalized groups.”