Preventable chronic diseases, such as heart disease, continue to be Nevada's and Clark County's leading cause of death. Nutrition education empowers people to reduce their risk of and help manage these diseases.
University of Nevada, Reno's College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources is collaborating with University of Nevada, Las Vegas, area hospitals, community organizations and the Clark County School District to provide nutrition education to southern Nevadans.
Developing registered dietitians
After graduating from college, prospective registered dietitian nutritionists apply to be matched with a dietetic internship. Completing the intense, seven-month supervised learning experience is a required step in earning their credential. However, fewer than 68% of applicants nationally match with an internship because there aren't enough "preceptors," or experienced practitioners, willing to supervise the interns.
To help, nutrition faculty with the College's Extension office in Clark County serve as preceptors for UNLV’s Dietetic Internship Program. As part of this work, Extension has trained about 200 UNLV interns since 2006. Extension Specialist Aurora Buffington was one of these interns, and now serves as Extension's lead for this partnership with UNLV.
"The relationship has been very positive," Buffington said. "UNLV has been very grateful for us to provide the community rotation for them. They appreciate our flexibility, and we always have room for an intern in our programming."
Making room for the interns is a win-win, providing Extension with knowledgeable graduates who can assist with Extension’s community programming.
Extension Specialist Anne Lindsay, who assists with the partnership, said, "The interns' expertise in health and nutrition allows them to create and manage nutrition activities at Extension events with little supervision. Interns also gain experience participating in statewide and multistate programs, some of which have extended beyond their internship and led to opportunities to author peer-reviewed journal publications."
This enhances Extension's ability to provide nutrition education in Clark County.
Additionally, Karon Felten of the College’s Dietetic Internship Program at the University of Nevada, Reno, collaborates with preceptors in Reno and Las Vegas to provide increased internship opportunities that benefit students from both universities.
"We take graduates from UNLV into our Dietetic Internship Program and vice versa," Felten said.
These efforts are part of a long tradition of statewide collaboration. For over 30 years, the College's internship program has placed some of its interns, over 100 so far, in six Las Vegas hospitals and community organizations.
Felten said, "We felt it was very important for UNR to work with the Las Vegas preceptors and provide a variety of opportunities for our interns."
Reno interns help Las Vegas hospitals
Training Reno interns in Las Vegas positively impacts the interns and the Clark County community.
"I never imagined that I would be completing my internship in Las Vegas," Intern Samantha Reineck said. "But it has truly made a positive impact on my life. The thing that I have enjoyed most is being able to apply all the knowledge that I have learned in a real-world setting, helping others along the way."
It also provides the interns with a greater exposure to diversity, different cultures, types of hospitals and clinical experiences.
"Completing my internship at the only level-1 trauma hospital in Nevada exposed me to people far beyond the Las Vegas area," Intern Stone Jamison said. "Many patients were from rural communities who do not have access to primary care. This presented me with the opportunity to provide information about how accessible dietary changes can increase their quality of life and health."
Additionally, placing the Reno interns at medical facilities in southern Nevada adds needed resources to the Las Vegas medical community.
"Anything that would be of educational benefit to the preceptors and interns, we try to support," Felten said. "The College has given the preceptors continuing education courses and provided Valley Medical Center with the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition core curriculum."
The partnership is mutually beneficial. This last match cycle, University Medical Center and its preceptor, Sally Saban, placed two more Reno interns than usual when a northern Nevada hospital became unable to host them.
"I called Sally, and said I know this is a huge reach," Felten said. "And, because of our relationship and we respect each other, she said she'd take an extra intern so we can keep the program going."
Keeping the program going has its benefits, especially since many of our state’s medical facilities struggle to maintain sufficient staffing levels.
"The interns are developing their skills," Felten said, "but they're also providing a tremendous amount of resources to the hospitals and community in Vegas."
Besides their contributions at the hospital, the interns offer community programming for youth at other places, such as the Nevada Diabetes Association Camp.
"They work with and do education for the little kiddos with diabetes," Felten said. "They're giving back."
What happens in Vegas
Although the Reno interns in Las Vegas are distant from their program director and the University of Nevada, Reno, they and their preceptors are not forgotten.
"We are not absent in their learning," Arezou Saeedi, program assistant director said. "We're in constant contact with all of our preceptors, and we give them a lot of support. It is a great collaboration."
The collaboration often results in the interns practicing in Las Vegas upon completion of their internship.
"One of our missions," Felten said, "is that we want people to stay in Nevada and serve areas here. Our interns have."
For example, University of Nevada, Reno alum Anita Renwick interned at University Medical Center and remained in Las Vegas after her training. Now, she's an inpatient clinical dietitian at Spring Valley Hospital in Las Vegas, where she assesses babies who need extra care, as well as medical and surgical patients. She also works part time at the Medical Center, is on the board of the Nevada Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and serves as a preceptor for UNLV dietetic interns.
"A lot of our interns, even from out of state, when they go to Vegas, they stay there," Saeedi said. "They’ve started employment in various health care systems, such as St. Rose Dignity Health WomensCare Center, and within a short period of time they’ve become managers."
But sometimes, interns trained in Vegas don't stay in Vegas.
"We've also had interns come back from Vegas to work in Reno, in rural Nevada or elsewhere with the skills they developed there," Felten said.
Collaborative internships help families
An important component of the dietetic internship is a project to resolve or improve a nutrition problem. While some interns only create their projects on paper, UNLV dietetic interns placed with Extension’s nutrition program in Clark County have a chance to do more.
"When they are with us," Buffington said, "they have a good opportunity. Because we are in the community, they might actually get to implement their projects. We’re a great place for interns to try things out with supervision with someone who has had that experience."
The interns also have the opportunity to learn how public policy changes impact nutrition, as both Buffington and Lindsay are public health professionals.
Public health nutrition projects that UNLV interns with Extension have helped implement in southern Nevada include:
- An updated Bingocize® nutrition and physical activity curriculum for older adults in partnership with Western Kentucky University
- Development of nutrition and physical activity training criteria currently being implemented for early childhood professional development through the Nevada Registry
- Virtual Extension programming to help women recover from drug addiction, and training for treatment providers on the role of nutrition in recovery
- New ways to measure and improve how facilities, such as a schools, help the people who learn, live or play in them make healthy choices
Every year, the UNLV interns with Extension join volunteers from UNLV’s Student and Nutrition Dietetic Association to receive training from Buffington and Lindsay on providing health and nutrition activities for Clark County families at Extension's Healthy Kids Festival and at other community events, such as Hoops for Hope, a basketball camp for underserved youth by Quiet Storm Foundation.
In providing the activities, the future nutrition professionals practice the nutrition and health communication skills they need to succeed, while expanding the activities Extension provides to the Clark County community.
"It’s mutually beneficial because we want their interest and expertise, and they’re required to fulfill hours requirements," Buffington said. "Working the festival helps them get experience tying their knowledge to communicating with and educating parents. In so doing, they help Las Vegan families live healthier lives."
"Our partnerships with UNLV don’t end at our internships," Buffington said. "Annie and I serve on multiple committees, departments and schools at UNLV."
The pair serves as graduate faculty for UNLV’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, part of the School of Public Health, and for UNLV’s Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition Sciences, part of the School of Integrated Health Sciences. In this role, they help guide UNLV master’s and Ph.D. students through the process of conducting research for, writing, and defending their theses and dissertations so that they can graduate.
Buffington, who was inducted into UNLV's Delta Omega Honor Society in Public Health, is currently serving on master’s professional paper committees for three UNLV students and on the UNLV Dietetic Internship Advisory Board. She’s provided guest lectures and presented at a professional conferences with UNLV faculty.
Lindsay, also a UNLV Delta Omega Honor Society in Public Health inductee, has published papers, presented at conferences and applied for grants with UNLV faculty; provided numerous guest lectures in UNLV courses; and invited UNLV faculty to participate in Extension committees. She also serves as an elected member-at-large (nondietitian) on Nevada’s Dietary Advisory Group. This group is formed by the Division of Public and Behavioral Health to work collaboratively with the Dietitian Industry including state licensure.
The inter-university service and partnership goes both ways. For example, UNLV Assistant Professor Courtney Coughenour is serving on a search committee to hire a nutrition specialist for Extension's Clark County office in Las Vegas.
Fostering a healthy future
Lindsay and Buffington aren't the only nutrition faculty from the University of Nevada, Reno to guest lecture at UNLV. During the fall 2021 semester, Assistant Professor David St-Jules helped Professor Sachiko St. Jeor, a University of Nevada, Reno professor emeritus now with UNLV's Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition Sciences, with her graduate-level course on nutrition assessment.
St-Jules gave lectures and assignments to the class on analyzing patients' dietary intakes and about nutrition assessment labs, which are facilities staffed by registered dietitians where patients have their nutritional health evaluated. He also taught the students how to conduct nutrition-focused physical exams. Such exams help registered dietitians determine the extent to which patients' nutritional needs are being met.
A registered dietitian himself, St-Jules organizes free workshops for nutrition scientists and other nutrition and dietetic professionals across the state to meet the continuing education requirements for their credentials.
St-Jules' most attended workshop of 2021 was the presentation by his colleague Assistant Professor Steven Frese on the gut microbiome's role in health and disease. Frese is enrolling participants, including those from southern Nevada, in a study on how the microbiome affects Nevadans' health.
College classes for Clark County kids
Frese and his colleagues in the College’s Department of Nutrition are eager to work not only with college students, but with Clark County School District students as well. The Department is developing classes for the University of Nevada, Reno’s pilot dual-enrollment program with the district.
The program empowers juniors and seniors at Centennial and Cheyenne High Schools in Las Vegas to earn up to nine college credits per semester. It aims to encourage more youth to pursue higher education, provide youth the skills and confidence to succeed in college, and make earning a university degree more affordable.
Victoria Gallegos, a junior at Cheyenne, said in an interview with KTNV, "A lot of us kids are scared to go into college, and just being able to experience it is helping us out."
Nutrition in medical, dental care settings
The Nutrition Department is also helping dentists and primary care providers, including those in southern Nevada, stay abreast of the latest research on children and beverage choices through its Rethink Your Drink Program.
The program provides timely updates on drinks and children's health, such as research on the risks associated with sugary drinks. The effort was featured during the Nevada Dental Association’s recent meeting in Las Vegas. It is also the subject of St-Jules' next workshop, held Feb. 22 at 8 a.m.
An award-winning combination
The College's work to provide nutrition education to southern Nevadans, including in partnership with UNLV, has resulted in a few awards.
Felten, her colleagues in the program and her interns recently nominated Saban for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' Outstanding Preceptor Award for Saban's work with Reno- and Las Vegas-based interns. Saban was one of only seven selected nationwide in 2021 to receive the honor.
Lindsay was named UNLV’s School of Integrated Health Sciences Alumna of the Year for 2019 in recognition of her work to address nutrition, obesity and eating disorders among women and children in southern Nevada, and for her support of UNLV. In addition to her work described above with UNLV, Lindsay has also raised funds to purchase exercise physiology lab equipment, and supported its Student Nutrition and Dietetic and Public Health Student Associations.
"No person, organization or institution is at its best when it stands alone," Lindsay said in a UNLV news story about the award. "Collaboration changes lives."