Meet Dr. Lisa Sheehan-Smith, a Professor in Nutrition and Food Science and the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics, who has worked at MTSU for over 20 years. From ice skating, to tea parties, Dr. Sheehan-Smith has quite the interesting story and great advice for anyone pursuing a career in nutrition.
Q: Thank you for speaking with the Student Voice today. To start off, tell me a little about your background and what led you to MTSU?
I graduated with my undergraduate degree in Dietetics and Institution Administration from Western Kentucky and then I completed my internship and Master’s degree in Science Education at Vanderbilt. After a 20 year career, I then went back to Vanderbilt and got my doctorate in Human Resource Development.
I spent half of my career in the health promotion or outpatient side of the business, so I worked with people either before they got sick, or when they were sick but not sick enough to be in the hospital. The other half of what I did was management roles in the big picture of hospitals. I have been able to use all this experience in my classroom and I think that really helps me be an effective teacher because I understand what is going on outside the classroom walls.
This is my 23rd year teaching full time at MTSU. I started as an adjunct professor because in the position I was in I was already working with MTSU students. I was the Clinical Nutrition Manager at Baptist Hospital (now St. Thomas Midtown) in Nashville and served as the preceptor for dietetics students completing their practicum. I was asked by the director of the program to teach a class, and I fell in love with teaching quickly so I dropped my other positions and started teaching full time.
Q: What do you do in your position at MTSU?
I am a full time professor in Nutrition Food Science. I teach all the courses on the management side of the program. I teach experiential learning, where we go out in the field and see what we are learning. For example, we go to the MTSU Creamery and dairy farm because I teach farm to table. I also teach all the professional development courses. One of the most important things is learning about what it takes to be a dietician and all the pathways you can take. In addition, I teach students about how they can be the best match possible for their dietetics internship because it is very competitive. I also teach a graduate course in management.
I am the director of the accredited dietetics program so I am responsible for making sure our program stays accredited. I do a lot of fun reports (haha) and keep track of all the program graduates. I do a lot of advising as a result of that, while they are a student here and after they graduate. I also do a lot of recruiting for our program.
Q: What does it take to be a dietician and what jobs are available for one?
In order to become a registered dietician, students have to go through a three step process. They need to get an undergraduate degree (ours is Nutrition Food Science with a Dietetics Concentration), apply and match to a dietetic internship, and take the national exam. It is a very rigorous process to become a registered dietician.
What is unique about our field is that you can practice in any area. We teach the entire life cycle so you can work with babies in the NICU, with children in schools, or with adults. You can work in hospitals or in outpatients. You can be a grocery school dietician (one of our recent dietitians actually works for some of the local Krogers here) or you can work with sports teams (we have a couple of former students who work in the NCAA). You can work in so many diverse areas which is really exciting for our undergraduates.
Q: What are some of the best memories from your time here at MTSU?
The best memories come when I see a student who has so much potential finally reach it.
This applies to a few different students over the years, and it’s when I really know that I’m making a difference. A student comes along and I think they have so much potential, but they don’t realize it and I’m wondering why they don’t perform the way they are capable.
When I feel comfortable and when I feel like the student is ready, I will ask that student to meet with me. I just lay it on the table, “I think you have so much potential but I don’t see it.” This can sometimes be a difficult conversation, but I don’t think I’d be doing my job if I didn’t have it.
Later on when I see them reach that potential and sometimes beyond it by going to graduate school or getting a PhD, it’s just the best memories and feelings. I did the job and because of that these students are out there reaching the sky. I think that’s really exciting.
And then since I do experiential learning, there are so many fun memories of touring a really neat facility with my class and having the students look at me like, “Oh, my goodness now I know what you’re talking about,” because you can only learn so much from a textbook.
Q: Why is dietetics so important?
We all have to eat. These days research is indicating that nutrition is playing a more critical role in disease prevention and management of a disease, and we (dieticians) play a key role. We understand the science behind nutrition but we also have the skills to translate that science into everyday language so we can teach people how to eat healthier. I think one of the pluses of being a dietician is we know how to individualize a nutrition plan for a patient regardless of their age, what they are doing in their life with their career, or what their disease is. We don’t practice cookie cutter nutrition. As more research comes out and as we see the relationship between specific diseases and nutrition, I think there is going to be a growing need for a dietitian. Who would have thought we would have a dietician working in a grocery school, or hired by a sports team, etc; those are growing areas and I think the potential is great for more growth in the field. A lot of our students also like to have their own businesses, and with social media these days you can blog or have your own website. It’s an exciting time.
Q: What advice do you have for students or prospective students?
I would say think about what you like to study. Our curriculum is very rigorous. Students take 28 hours of sciences including chemistry and biology, and then all the nutrition science courses, so I think a prospective student really has to have a desire to study the sciences. And then ask yourself, “Do you have a passion and interest in helping others?” We are known as the “helping profession” because we obtain all this knowledge and acquire all these skills so that we can help others where they are at their point of life. We really encourage our students to be active in volunteer organizations and give back because there is a big service component in this profession.
I would also advise to be open-minded in the areas that you can work in. A lot of students come to me and say “I want to do this” but I say come with an open slate and be ready to learn about all the different areas you can work in. Doing so gives students more opportunities while they are at MTSU and then when they graduate as well.
Q: What are some foods students should eat?
Well first of all, I never tell anyone what they “can’t” eat, I think my job is just giving recommendations for the consumer to make an informed choice. I recommend students to eat a high fiber diet – that includes a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables or as minimally processed as possible because processing damages the fiber. And then whole grains. We hear “carbs, carbs, carbs” so often these days but everyone lumps carbs in one big pocket; there is healthier carbs than not. So if we are eating whole grains, we are limiting the white bread and the white pasta because they don’t have as many nutrients and more sugar. Added sugar is what we are really talking about when it comes to healthy eating. You then need to have some good lean protein. Whether you are choosing to be a vegan, vegetarian, or choosing to eat meat, just choose lean to get all the protein and not all the extra fat. The same thing goes with choosing low fat dairy because we still need that calcium and Vitamin D.
Overall, try to eat a variety of foods throughout the day. Student schedules are so hectic, just like faculty schedules. I am one of those “mini meal” people. I like to eat every couple hours to keep my brain going rather than going long hours and then be starving by the next meal. When that happens, we usually aren’t paying attention to what we are eating so we tend to eat too fast or too much and maybe not as healthy as a choice.
Q: What are 3 fun facts about yourself?
- I’m a competitive figure skater, but I didn’t take it up will I was 40. I went back to get my doctorate when I was 40 and took up figure skating as a stress reliever. I then got hooked on it and here I am.
- I am originally from Canada and most of my family still lives there.
- I host tea parties for friends and I make everything from scratch (it’s not always healthy). It’s a very comforting time that my friends gather and we enjoy lovely tea with china and homemade foods. In my alter life, I would have a tea room.
Q: What’s your favorite meal?
My favorite category of foods is Italian. One of my favorite meals growing up was on New Year’s Day, my mother would make lasagna from scratch. You could smell that sauce cooking all day. We would have this wonderful homemade lasagna with bread from a local Italian bakery. To this day if I find a place who makes a really good lasagna, I’ll get it. It’s still one of my favorite meals and maybe it’s because it is a comfort food from my childhood.
Going with the exact opposite, however, I really love a grilled piece of salmon with some grilled vegetables and maybe so quinoa.
I enjoy eating and I don’t think people should ever feel guilty about eating. I think sometimes these days it’s almost like a competition. Food is meant to nourish our bodies but it’s meant to be enjoyable too.