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  • Haley Schlechter, RD, LDN

What is a Research RD?

First week back and I am keeping it light! In honor of National Nutrition Month, I am here to talk about what I do as a dietitian, specifically as a research dietitian at a pretty cool place called Johns Hopkins.

I have been working in nutrition research for over 6 years and to this day, I choke up whenever someone asks me to explain what I do for a living. That is if they don’t panic at hearing me say “research dietitian” and drop the topic, because really, what could that possibly mean? I envision people thinking I wear a lab coat with goggles, measuring out nutrient compounds into glass tubes over a Bunsen burner, and waiting for something interesting to happen, but this is far from the truth. I haven’t used Bunsen burner since college chem.

Overall, Research Dietitians make up a pretty small group within the dietetic field (less than 1%) and we usually work within the government or university hospital setting. Although it varies from institute to institute, overall most Research Dietitians help research scientist (AKA investigators) to develop and/or implement some or all of the nutrition components of their research project (AKA their protocol). Think of it as a consultant that sticks around and implements their own advice. Some of us spend most of our time behind desks, writing and calculating while others spend a majority of time tailoring nutrient-specific diets and working in metabolic kitchens (picture a normal kitchen with scales on every table, we do wear the lab coats though).

Luckily for me, I have a good mix of responsibilities that always keep me on my toes. I work clinically (outpatient mostly) with both pediatric patients who have genetic diseases and with adult patients who have epilepsy. I also spend a great deal of time behind my desk organizing pediatric food allergy challenges and developing large-scale feeding trials (I have a close relationship with excel). Although that doesn’t include all of the protocols I cover, those are the areas I spend the majority of my time. Oh and I do A LOT of paperwork. Some days, that is all I spend time doing, but you take the good with the bad. Keeping patients safe is pretty important so I’ll deal with the paperwork. In the future, I plan to write more about each of those areas (minus the paperwork) as they are pretty incredible and beautiful reminders of just how much nutrition impacts peoples’ lives.

Being on the front end of research has been pivotal in my understanding of how we come to so many of our nutritional recommendations (some maybe not as founded as others) and how to utilize previous research to create more novel and specialized nutrition therapies. If we don’t know how we got here, we won’t be able to effectively make changes. If anything, working in research has taught me to be more critical of current nutrition recommendations and push for more solid evidence to support current claims. We need to intelligently question and re-test old standards regularly to ensure we are providing the highest quality care. The goal is to always support or redefine our standards of care, and being a part of that motivates the hell out of me.

In Summary:

  • Research dietetics does not take place in a lab unless it’s a food lab (more on that to come).

  • Research dietitians help investigators (other scientists) develop and implement nutrition protocols.

  • My goal, as many researchers share, is to effectively question the old standards and create new innovative nutrition solutions to chronic illness. I want people to live healthier, longer lives… and eat more veggies.

  • If you have ever considered being in a research study, do it! Clinical research is incredible and needs more volunteers to better understand human health (humans are complicated which is a problem).

My game plan is to post at least once monthly so I will talk to you all again soon!

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