Nutrition-Focused Summer Research Practicum
The Phoenix VA Health Care System (PVAHCS) launched the Nutrition-Focused Summer Research Practicum (SRP) in 2021 as part of a pilot program from the VA Office of Research Development (ORD) to promote Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in science and the VA workforce. The goal of the program is to inspire college students who are otherwise underrepresented in science to choose a VA career. Because nutrition is often underrepresented in VA research, and we have a core group of dietitians engaged in research, we decided to focus specifically on nutrition research.
The vision for the PVAHCS Nutrition-Focused Summer Research Practicum is to provide superior whole health and nutritional sciences research training to drive positive change for Veterans, by putting innovation, diversity and daring leadership at the forefront. The underpinnings of this experience are based on Dr. Brené Brown’s philosophy to “bring [our] whole selves including [our] unarmored, whole hearts—so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people[PKN1] ” (Brené Brown, Dare to Lead). Our mission is to provide experiences in nutrition and other research to the future VA workforce, particularly those under-represented in science to foster insight, inquiry, and innovation in VA healthcare. Our program focuses primarily on the nutritional sciences and other areas of VA research.
The SRP is a 3-month paid research practicum from May to August that includes intensive research education and experiences. Scholars are each assigned to one research project with a Research Mentor or Primary Investigator (PI). During the summer, Scholars attend weekly educational seminars, work on active research projects. Key elements of the program include research design, data analysis, and research dissemination. Scholars will also learn more about the VA and Veteran experience, gain experiences in networking and clinical areas, and develop personally and professionally. Eight Scholars will be accepted in 2024 to participate in the program. Scholars can continue in the program for up to 3 years.
- We strive to show up as our whole selves with authenticity and courage.
- We seek inclusion and acceptance of diverse voices and experiences.
- We learn about others’ experiences and respond with
- We serve our community and Veterans through our actions in and out of research
- We endeavor to act ethically in every situation
- We approach problems with curiosity
PVAHCS Summer Research Practicum Faculty
Katherine Petersen, MS, RD, CSO is the Co-Director for the PVAHCS Summer Research Practicum. She received her Master’s degree in Clinical Nutrition at Arizona State University. She is an Advanced Practice Oncology Dietitian with clinical and research interests in head and neck cancer, nutrition support, body composition, the cancer cachexia syndrome, nutrition-related quality of life, and interactions between the gut microbiome and cancer treatment. Current projects include:
- The evaluation of cancer center nutrition referral models withing the VHA,
- Prophylactic vs Reactive feeding tube placement in Veterans with head and neck cancer receiving chemoradiotherapy,
- Sarcopenia screening, evaluation, and treatment in outpatient Veterans with cancer, and
- Education on a high fiber diet to improve immunotherapy response in Veterans with cancer.
She is passionate about oncology nutrition, promoting RD involvement in nutrition research, educating health trainees, and workplace diversity. Her favorite animal is a chicken. In her free time, she enjoys being outdoors hiking, camping, paddle boarding, and gardening.
Kevin Kupferer, DHSc, PA-C, MsCl is the Co-Director of the PVAHCS Summer Research Practicum alongside Katherine Petersen. He is a Physician Assistant and the Director of Operations for the PVAHCS Research Clinical Science Center. He also provides clinical service through the VA Lung Cancer Screening Service and assists with clinical study navigation for the Research Department. He retired from the Air Force in 2016 and has lived in AZ since 2018, working with the VA since 2020 at the onset of COVID. His research interests primarily center around primary care, emergency medicine, military trauma and cognitive clinical areas. He is also an Adjunct professor with ASU and AT Still University, teaching capstone and research methodology for doctoral programs. His hobbies include being a dad, working on cars, woodworking and general tinkering. He thoroughly enjoys solving problems and being outside whenever possible.
Anthony Basile, MS, PhD, RDN is an Instructor and Research Mentor for the PVACHS Summer Research Practicum. He recently graduated from Arizona State University with a doctorate in Evolutionary Biology. He also holds a Bachelors in Dietetics, Food, and Nutrition from the City University of New York (CUNY), Lehman College and a Master’s degree in Human Nutrition from Columbia University Irving Medical Center. In addition, Anthony is an accredited Nutrition and Dietetic Technician, Registered. Anthony firmly believes that an evolutionary perspective can help advance the fields of nutrition, dietetics, and public health. Currently, Anthony is an Adjunct Researcher in the College of Health Sciences at Arizona State University, Adjunct Faculty at Estrella Mountain Community College, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Lehman College and Hunter College. In addition, Anthony also recently completed an Individualized Supervised Practice Pathway (ISPP) through the University of Oklahoma to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.
Mary Mancini Chew, MS, RD is an Instructor for the Summer Research Program. In her role as a research dietitian, she is responsible for the overall support and alignment of all nutrition research issues. She plans, organizes, manages, and implements nutritional research and quality improvement projects; and works with the clinical nutrition department and national committees to identify opportunities for future research opportunities to improve programs. In addition, she proactively extracts, reviews, and summarizes relevant information within current research literature that guide best practice. She writes study proposals, analyzes, and compiles research data, and develops guidelines, protocols and procedures selective to clinical nutrition within the VA health care system. Her research interests are in nutrition support in the oncology and critical care populations. She is involved in the Summer Research Program to inspire and engage the future VA nutrition workforce to work at the top of their scope.
Julie Kurtz, MS, RD, CDE is the Team Lead for Mentoring, Professional Development, and Program Outcomes for the PVAHCS Summer Research Practicum. She is currently Chief of Nutrition, Hospitality, and Food Service at PVAHCS where she manages 120 employees within the facility. Her career in research has focused on improving the Veteran’s lifestyle through the design of innovative nutrition intervention models. Early in her research career, I designed a research intervention that evaluated a medically supervised weight-loss program to produce weight loss necessary to achieve surgical clearance. This collaboration built research confidence and a passion for diabetes education. She subsequently led a team to design and implement two successful diabetes education care delivery models at the Phoenix VA. Her work in diabetes led to a collaboration in endocrinology to assist in the design of a hypercaloric, high-fat liquid shake testing a GLP-1 receptor agonist’s impact on postprandial lipid elevation.
Since this time, she has transitioned her focus and passion into studying whole-food plant-based nutrition interventions in collaboration with other Phoenix VA researchers to examine the feasibility of such a diet on cardiovascular risk factors in Veterans. More recently as her interests have evolved, I have been interested in effectiveness research as it relates to nutrition care process documentation and communication. I am part of the team that revised and validated an audit tool which was determined to improve accuracy and confidence in chart and streamline integration of the Nutrition Care Process in the Health Records.
Through her role in the Summer Research Practicum, she has developed the mentoring program and focused on resume and interviewing skills with the scholars. She enjoys watching the students grow as they learn new skills and turn those skills into personal mastery!
In her spare time, she loves to do anything outdoors! You will find her walking or biking through the Phoenix Mountain preserve. She is an avid birder, enjoys wine tasting, and working in her garden!
Janet Fawcett, PhD is an Instructor for data analysis and management, and research methodology for the PVACHS Summer Research Practicum. Dr. Fawcett is a Health Scientist and Methodologist. She has worked at the Phoenix VA for over 20 years. Her research interests include diabetes (from her days as a bench scientist that she can’t get out of her system) and now it’s all things data. She LOVES SQL programming. As an Instructor in the Summer Research Practicum, she hopes to give insight into all things (or at least some things!) data and methodology. She enjoys her pups, Jazzercise, jigsaws, trying to increase her “cultured” side – and increase the local experiences.
Joseph Roberts, PhD is an Instructor and Research Mentor for the PVAHCS Summer Research Practicum. He is an assistant professor of nutrition at Arizona State University. He investigates how nutritional and lifestyle-based approaches can be used as adjuvant therapies to improve quality of life while simultaneously enhancing healing in patients suffering from musculoskeletal injuries. Specifically, his laboratory studies how the gut microbiota contributes to pain and metabolism during convalescence after traumatic bone injuries. Before joining the faculty at ASU in 2022, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University School of Medicine and Atlanta VA Health Care System, where he studied the effects of probiotic supplements on fracture repair during aging. Roberts earned his doctorate in nutrition and health sciences from Emory University.
Jonathan Lifshitz, PhD is a Research Mentor and Instructor for the PVAHCS Summer Research Practicum. Dr. Lifshitz has an extensive background in Neuroscience, with continuous training in experimental models of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and their clinical application. In Phoenix, he leads the Neurotrauma & Social Impact research team as a joint venture between PVAHCS, the College of Medicine – Phoenix, and Barrow Neurological Institute at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. His research has focused on cutting-edge research topics that advance the field — including mitochondria involvement in neuropathology, amygdala-dependent affective behavior, sensory sensitivity, objective signs of TBI, neuroinflammation, cognitive rehabilitation and peripheral inflammation. More than 100 peer-reviewed publications represent a body of work that includes basic mechanism, translational investigation, health care data analysis and topics of social impact related to health care disparities.
Dr. Lifshitz has served as and continues to serve on federal grant review panels, the National Neurotrauma Society, the AZ Governor’s Council on Spinal and Head Injuries, the Maricopa County Collaborative on Concussions in Domestic Violence (MC3DV), the global Neurological Epidemic in Abusive Trauma (gNEAT) and as the associate editor for Neuroscience Letters.
Significant effort has been dedicated to training junior investigators - with great reward personally and professionally. It is through hard work, gradualism, and humility that projects evolve, earn funding, are completed and presented. Within the research team, our efforts in equity, diversity, and inclusion extend toward belonging. We take every effort to remold the group dynamic to adopt culture, style and perspective of new members. For example, the COVID pandemic spurred multiple discussions on mental health, work-life balance and the need for community to overcome adversity.
Active Neurotrauma & Social Impact research team projects include: understanding the circuit plasticity required for cognitive rehabilitation after TBI, while translating rehabilitation strategies into virtual reality; developing a molecular toolbox for precise identification of brain microglia in disease; fecal microbiome to track disease and therapeutic processes; and securing miniaturized fluorescent microscopes to track drug delivery, microglia and cerebrovasculature. The newest project investigates the consequences of TBI during pregnancy on neurodevelopment.
Diane Parrington, PhD, RD is a doctorally prepared RD who spent her tenure with the VA leading and encouraging RDs to work at the edge of their competence. Since 2009 she has served as the Deputy Associate Chief of Staff for Research (DACOS). This followed seven years as the Chair of the Clinical Nutrition Department and twelve years as a clinical dietitian. Three years before taking the DACOS position, she was a voting member and then Chair of the Institutional Review Board (IRB). The DACOS role is primarily administrative, working with investigators, the research committees, the Office of Research Oversight etc., participating in developing programs and processes to facilitate research. However, her time spent in clinical research and mentoring has been the most satisfying part of her job.
Dr. Parrington’s research interests have changed throughout her career and have always been informed by practice. As a novice RD working in the “Nursing Home Care Unit,” she wanted to know why we were serving “low-fat” (AHA) diets to our residents when they had hypocholesterolemia. Shortly after this article was published, she started my doctoral work at the University of Arizona, Tucson. While living in Phoenix (about 125 miles from Tucson), she worked as a clinical RD, and had 3 school age children. This was a time before distance learning or even the internet. It was a challenge, but she loved every minute, and she brought back everything she learned to share with her colleagues. She was privileged to work under the auspices of Dr. Mary Ann Kight, PhD, RD, a true pioneer in the field of nutritional assessment, and diagnoses.
Her interests had now turned toward palliative care nutrition. Still working in the NHCU, she was curious as to how some patients were labeled “here to die,” and therefore nutrition was considered irrelevant. But they didn’t all die, and some went on to have surgical interventions and other treatments. I reasoned there must be a role for nutrition in palliative care.
Working with Dr. Kight provided the opportunity to study the science of nutritional status assessment, using the 5 axes of evidence: Dietary and Alimentation, Weight and Anthropometrics, Biochemical/Metabolic, Clinical, and Drug. Dr. Parrington’s focus now turned to micronutrient imbalances testing the feasibility of a multi-micronutrient intervention to improve micronutrient status, cardiac function and quality of life in Veterans with CHF, and later the effects of a plant strong diet on cardiovascular risk factors.
Peter Reaven, MD is a Research Mentor and Instructor for the PVAHCS Summer Research Practicum. He is a staff endocrinologist at the Phoenix VA. He has a broad clinical and research background in insulin resistance, diabetes, dyslipidemia and vascular disease, where he has pursued these related lines of investigation with multiple approaches, including in vitro studies, animal models, and carefully controlled intervention trials in clinical research center settings. During the past two decades, he has also been closely involved in the development, conduct and analysis of large, multicenter clinical trials and in utilizing these studies for effects of glucose lowering and identification of standard and novel risk factors such as glucose fluctuation for cardiovascular disease and diabetes complications.
He is currently site PI for VA CSP trial of Metformin in Pre-Diabetes and Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Outcomes, he was Co- chair, Executive Committee Member and site PI for the recently completed Veterans Administration Glycemic Control and Complications in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus Trial Follow-up Study, site PI and past Steering Committee Member for the completed ACT NOW prevention of diabetes study and PI of the NIH funded study Vascular Metabolic Memory in Type 2 Diabetes. Engaging with these large trials and accompanying datasets has driven his recent efforts into big data analysis projects, where he has begun collaborative efforts with a number of biostatisticians, genetic epidemiologists and clinicians exploring the large VA electronic medical record system and Million Veteran Program biobank. He continues as co-investigator and site PI on several VA MVP projects which utilize the VA EMR system to examine for phenotypic and genetic associations with diabetes and its many complications. For clinical trials, he examines measures of cardiovascular health based on the mean and variability of risk factors.
Dr. Reaven participates in the Summer Research Practicum to provide research opportunities and experiences for those wondering what research possibilities may exist within the VA. His hobbies include mountain biking and mixology.
Patsy Diaz Delgado, BS completed two years as a Scholar in the PVAHCS Summer Research Practicum. Her growing interest in research has her returning to the VA to expand her research skills, and this past year she also served as a Peer Mentor. She completed projects related to sarcopenia in Veterans with cancer, and the effect of an evolutionary mismatch education on diet quality. Her abstract “Is Sarcopenia Screening and Diagnosis Feasible in the Outpatient Oncology Setting?” was accepted for a poster presentation at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Scientists (ABRCMS) 2024. She continues to work with the researchers she met during her time in the SRP. She will complete her Master’s in December and will be applying for dietetic internships this Spring.
Lindsay Chapman, DTR was a first-year Scholar for the summer of 2023. She worked on a project with Dr. Anthony Basile on evaluating the effect of an evolutionary mismatch education on diet quality. As part of this project, she submitted an abstract to ABRCMS 2024 that was accepted for a poster presentation. She also worked on the development of a fiber tool for a research project to implement a high fiber diet for Veterans receiving Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors in order to affect cancer outcomes. She feels that the SRP helped to reinforce her career goals, expand her areas of interest, and increase her interest in research as a career goal. She is applying for the PVAHCS Dietetic Internship this Fall.
Kylie Waynick comes from a family of Veterans and her passion for serving Veterans came through in her work with the Summer Research Practicum. In her first year in the Summer Research Program, she worked on a project that examined the congruence between malnutrition diagnoses between dietitians and physicians in hospitalized Veterans – and how this relates to important patient outcomes like readmissions. Her work on this project was also accepted for a poster presentation at ABRCMS 2024. The things she found most helpful about the SRP were the weekly Research Seminars and working with a Professional Mentor. She is applying for the PVAHCS Dietetic Internship this Fall.
Viviana Aguilar, has completed one year as a Scholar with the Summer Research Practicum at PVAHCS where she worked on a project with Dr. Peter Reaven involving Veterans with diabetes living in rural areas. She plans to complete her BS this Fall and return to the SRP this summer before applying to PA or medical school. Advice she would offer to future Scholars is to be patient with yourself and be OK with failure. Ask for help, and utilize all of your resources.
Angelina Joy Roose, DTR was a Scholar with the Summer Research Practicum in 2022. She worked with Dr. Anthony Basile on the effect of an evolutionary mismatch education on diet quality. Her favorite part of the program was witnessing dietitians, doctors, and other healthcare professionals living their passions and making an impact on Veterans and individuals in their orbit. She was energized seeing passionate people pursuing research. In the SRP she knowledge about the history of research, the importance of the Belmont Report, and confidence that a career in research at the VA is within reach. She was accepted into a Coordinated DPG Program in Chicago for 2024.
Emma Martin, BS was a graduate Scholar in the Summer Research Practicum for 2023. She worked with Dr. Ray Migrino on a project: “What is the association between medin, vascular dysfunction, and cognitive decline in a study with 91 brain donors?”. In addition to technical knowledge she gained in the lab, she learned a lot about dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, and that negative study results can often be just as valuable science as a positive result. She is completing her MS at Eastern Illinois University this Fall before starting her dietetic internship at OSF Medical Center in Illinois in January. She ultimately hopes to become a PhD RD. She found the connections she gained with other professionals as part of the SRP to be especially helpful and her confidence improved over the summer.
Chelsea Brammeier, BS, DTR was a Scholar in the Summer Research Practicum for two consecutive years – one as an undergrad, and one as a graduate student during her dietetic internship with PVAHCS. Chelsea worked on two projects: 1) Enhanced Recover After Surgery (ERAS), and 2) Prophylactic vs Reactive Feeding Tube Placement in Veterans with Head and Neck Cancer Receiving Chemoradiotherapy. She submitted an abstract based on her work with the ERAS project to the Association of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN) Conference for January 2024. Chelsea will complete her dietetic internship in Spring of 2024 and hopes to become a clinical RD with the Phoenix VA.
Summer Research Program Elements
- Opportunity to tour research facilities with community partners (e.g. NIH, TGen, ASU)
- Networking and collaboration with over 20 VA investigators
- Research, professional, and peer mentors
- Writing groups to develop and refine your professional and scientific writing
- Personal development
- Career exploration through tailored shadowing, mentoring, and interviews with people in your chosen field
- “Meet the Investigator”: >20 Interviews with diverse VA researchers to learn and be inspired by their pathways
- “American Veteran”: Learn about the experiences of local Veterans and gain a passion for working with Veterans in this 6-session series
- 8-hour weekly seminars on research topics and professional and personal development
Our students have:
- Program-sponsored attendance at conferences
- 5 abstracts accepted to major conferences
- Increased Dietetic Intern Desirability scores
- % acceptance to higher educational opportunities
- Increased confidence