Jeremy Craig, 404-413-1357
ATLANTA — Nicole Dingels always knew that she wanted to go into health. And with the three leading causes of death in the United States — heart disease, cancer and stroke — influenced by nutrition, she’s working to learn more about the mechanisms of metabolism and the role of genes in order to help keep people healthy.
Dingels, a nutrition graduate student under assistant professor Meera Penumetcha, is researching interactions involving lipids —molecules that the body uses for energy storage and which are a group that include fats and oils.
Specifically, she wants to know more about the interactions that occur when lipids are oxidized — when atoms of an element lose electrons — and the metabolism of adipose tissue, or body fat. Much of the American diet includes fried or fast foods that contain oxidized lipids.
“Our lab is interested in the role of oxidized lipids on human health, thus this topic could be very significant for understanding if and how they influence fat mass, and ultimately, obesity,” Dingels said.
Nutrition in the human body involves a complex interplay of metabolism, vitamins and minerals, amino acids, proteins, and fats — and the amounts of different substances can have ramifications for well-being.
“The fact that an excess or deficiency of a particular nutrient can have direct health consequences is intriguing because it suggests that proper nutrition is the foundation for a healthy life,” Dingels said. “I like studying nutrition because it is 100 percent relevant to everyone, everywhere.”
Genetics also plays a role in nutrition, which is also one of her interests, as specific nutrients can influence how genes are expressed.
Nutrition is a critical issue facing American health professionals as health care costs continue to skyrocket in the face of diseases that can be prevented through proper nutrition.
“Unfortunately our health care system does not cover many nutritional services which are necessary for the prevention of disease,” Dingels said. “So the great challenge for dietitians is helping people establish healthy eating habits early in life, along with developing strategies to allow them to maintain their healthy habits.”
In working to improve nutrition for Americans, she’s not only working in the lab, but she’s also working right in GSU’s urban backyard to help adults and children make healthier choices. She recently assembled an event focused on improving nutrition for the Pittsburg community at the Kroc Center. Dingels arranged a room for children where they learned how to plant vegetables and make healthy snacks for themselves.
Learning good nutrition habits early in life is key in preventing disease, she said.
“The problem I commonly see is that people eat a certain way their whole life, with no medical problems, and then once they hit a certain age, their poor nutritional intake has caught up with them,” Dingels said. “Developing healthy habits early on in life is much easier than changing lifelong unhealthy habits.” But it’s never too late to make healthy changes.
During her work in the Pittsburg community, she also educated adults about daily calorie and nutrient needs.
“We then provided a cooking demo on how to modify typical Southern food without losing flavor,” she said. “It was a hit.”
Dingels’ work started at GSU as an undergraduate nutrition student, where she learned the ropes of research. She caught the eye of Penumetcha after seeing a paper she wrote for a nutrition class, which was entered for the Library Undergraduate Research Awards.
She also participated in the Georgia State Undergraduate Research Conference during the spring, and garnered first place for her work.
“I still ask myself, ‘did I really win that?’” she said. “To me it was a very big deal because I never participated in anything of that sort. It’s funny because the night before the conference I had dinner with my parents, and I remember telling my mom I just don’t want the judges to eat me alive. So I entered the conference with the mindset that it would simply be a learning experience.”
She added that the conference gave her confidence in presenting research and effectively communicating it. Dingels encourages students interested in research to pursue the conference.
“It is one thing to be able to conduct a quality experiment and obtain fascinating results, but if you cannot communicate this in a more simplified language to the public, then the research is not applicable for the listener,” she said. “It’s a great way to learn problem solving in everyday life,” Dingels said. “I learned so much in a year that I can only imagine how much more is available for me to explore."
Sept. 6, 2011