By Jim Hynes
Timing, they say, is everything. After completing a PhD in Nutrition and Physiology Chemistry at the University of California (Davis), Kristine Koski was looking for a place where she could bring together her research, clinical experience and experience in program development. She found it at McGill, which was beginning to reorganize its School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition.
The Seattle, Wash., native, who has been the School’s Director since 2004, recently talked to the Reporter about the School, her own research, the new food labs on Macdonald Campus, and more.
How did a lifelong West Coaster like you end up here?
McGill had just recruited Dr. Harriet Kuhnlein (the School’s Director from 1985 to 1992.). They wanted to develop a research format, so I was one of five professors who came in between 1985 and 1990 to help shape what is now the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition. It really was a great fit for me. Our mandate was program development, rebuilding the School from the ground up. There were no research labs back then. Our group had a lot to do with the facilities you see here today. We were tucked away in little shared research laboratories at first and slowly but surely emerged as the School that exists today.
Tell us a little about the School today.
McGill has a strong reputation, having been involved with Dietetics training since 1907. We’re the oldest continuously operating Human Nutrition and Dietetics program in Canada. At one point we had trained over 50 per cent of the dietitians in the country. Other provinces have since started programs patterned after our coordinated undergraduate training program. We are now moving into a new area, the credentialing of dietitians at the graduate level. We also have a new Diploma in Graduate Dietetics credentialing, and that has spawned an interest from a lot of professionals throughout the world in coming back to McGill to get additional training in advanced clinical nutrition and dietetics.
We currently have 10 tenure- track professors teaching over 400 Undergraduate students in three programs, including the three -and-a-half-year Dietetics major, which is accredited by Dietitians of Canada. About 100 graduate students are divided among our three graduate programs (MSc in Human Nutrition (Applied), MSc (Thesis) and a PhD in Human Nutrition.
What kind of things are your researchers looking at?
Our researchers are a diverse group. Several are investigating food-security issues here in Canada and abroad. We are hoping to train more students in international nutrition as one way to help deal with the impending worldwide nutrition crisis. Other professors are researching chronic diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, hypertension and diabetes, since poor diet and nutrition underscore these conditions.
Another research focus in the School is the area of maternal and childhood nutrition.
Which brings us to your own research interests.
Yes. I actually came here on a fellowship in maternal and childhood nutrition from the American Society of Nutrition and I continue to research in that area. Initially, I investigated the impact of low carbohydrate diets on fetal growth and development, noting that there were some problems if pregnant women ate that way during pregnancy. My current focus is on the nutrient composition of amniotic fluid and investigating the role that nutrients play in early growth and development. Very little work has been done in this area. There is a theory now, called the Barker Hypothesis, which states that many of our diseases are programmed in utero during pregnancy and during early development. I have one of the only amniotic fluid biobanks in Canada, having collected samples over the past 10 years. Basically, the idea is to investigate early metabolomic profiles to identify biomarkers of adverse pregnancy outcomes and poor fetal and neonatal growth and development. This later work is collaborative. I am working with partners in Analytical Chemistry, in particular David Burns on the downtown campus, to develop non-invasive approaches to earlier diagnosis.
There’s a strong international scope to the work the school does now, isn’t there?
What we’re finding really interesting lately is how many requests we’ve had from institutions in Chile, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and some Caribbean countries to see if we can assist them in developing advanced dietetics education training programs. One of our professors, Dr. Grace Marquis, has just recently finished the construction of a new nutrition centre in rural Ghana. We anticipate establishing a dietetics training program at the graduate level at this facility. We already have U.S. partners that are interested in our international training model. We understand that for a developing country a new model of dietetics education will be required. We’re going to create a framework to allow people to develop an approach that would be appropriate and specific to those countries.
The global food crisis is about shortages and prices, but isn’t there a nutrition side to it as well?
Along with the issue of quantity there is also the problem of food quality in many developing countries. Indigenous peoples throughout the world have food systems, so part of our work now is understanding the health properties of these food systems. There are some aspects of those food systems, like the biodiversity element, that are extremely important. The premise we work with is that biodiversity and agricultural diversity lead to diet diversity, and diet diversity leads to food security. And so, in that flow of activity, we aim to preserve biodiversity, to increase agricultural diversity, and to identify those animal source foods and crops that might have health benefits for the local communities, particularly for children and pregnant mothers who are often the most vulnerable.
What are some of the most critical nutritional issues facing us today?
Probably the most important is the way poor diet is linked to the emergence of chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes. Now there is a growing concern about hypertension – over 50 per cent of the Canadian population has hypertension which is asymptomatic. That’s why there’s been so much recent attention to the sodium content of foods and the need to increase the potassium content, i.e., fruit and vegetable consumption in our diets. Another chronic disease is osteoporosis. We know that it’s linked to Vitamin D deficiencies. A large part of the Canadian population is classified as Vitamin D deficient. That may be what’s behind a certain amount of the osteoporosis we’re seeing and concerns we have about frail elderly, and the growing concerns around the aging population and their nutrition. There is a growing concern that we will need to improve diets to maintain our health as long as we can in order not to overburden the health care system.
What’s your role in the annual Food Conference?
I have been a member of the organizing committee since its inception. This year we are addressing the Water and Nutrition Challenges and have invited speakers to address “food as a human right” and strategies to measure international and national food security as well as food security as the community and individual levels. We have speakers representing Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. We will also be showcasing some of the on-going work by School Faculty affiliated with the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment.
Tell us about your new food labs at Mac.
The old food laboratories in the basement of the Macdonald-Stewart building were set up based on the model of the education system that existed in the 1940’s, ’50s, and ’60s, when we were a School of Household Science and we were training young people as Home Economics teachers. The new education model focuses on training dietitians/nutritionists to run large institutional cafeterias. The new facilities are actually a cluster of four labs in an open concept. We will also have a demonstration area that will be a camera-ready centre so students can develop instructional videos. We also will emphasize the principals of nutritious product development and sensory evaluation of foods for those dietitians working with the food industry.
Some of our students need to be able to run a cafeteria, whether it be for a hospital, a school, or a corporate headquarters. That means we need modern facilities and equipment to train them with new technology. Not everyone understands how much new cooking technologies and appliances have advanced, like the Combi unit, which uses computer programming to prepare hundreds of meals in short periods of time. It will be a very modern facility.
What was your first job?
My first part-time job was working at the concession stands at the University of Washington Husky football games. We didn’t have cash registers and they expected us to serve a person a minute – basically junk food. My first full-time job was as a lecturer at Central Washington University teaching nutrition while a professor was on a two year sabbatical.
For more info about the McGill School of Dietetics and Nutrition and its programs, go to: www.mcgill.ca/dietetics