Spotlight on Scientists: Dr. Sara Schaefer, New Associate Director of Educational Programs

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Dr. Schaefer’s doctoral research identified important social barriers to nutrition education uptake and response in school children of underserved populations. She felt strongly committed to gaining diverse experience in health education and, after finishing her doctoral degree at UC Davis in 2005, spent two years promoting health and nutrition in rural Honduras. As part of the U.S. Peace Corps’ Health Extension program, she worked educating different sectors of the population, such as nurses, doctors, mothers and school children in impoverished rural communities, about nutrition, food and health.

After returning from abroad she worked for a non-profit organization in Washington D.C. developing projects to improve nutrition in developing countries through innovative applications of food science and technology. As she discovered during her work abroad and in the non-profit world, she was very interested in the way that knowledge from research science reaches communities. She pursued a postdoctoral position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying the health of indigenous people living in Arctic communities, for whom a unique genetic predisposition and a rapidly shifting culture play large roles in diet-disease associations.

Dr. Schaefer completed her position at UNC just as the Foods for Health Institute was expanding its programs and began a search for a new Associate Director of Educational Programs. The opportune timing resulted in return to UC Davis to join the Foods for Health Institute. “I’m impressed with the Institute’s potential to revolutionize the way we look at health and nutrition,” she says, describing the Children’s Health Program and the overall approach of the FFHI to promote personal health. “As a community nutritionist, one of the most difficult questions I face from people is ‘what should I eat?’ since individuals vary so widely in their requirements. A personalized approach to health education can better facilitate people’s understanding of their own unique needs to achieving optimal health.”

Innovation in community health is Dr. Schaefer’s primary focus. “I’m dedicated to finding new ways to integrate scientific findings into community-level projects,” she says. Throughout her academic and professional career she has always “gravitated naturally to the interface between research science and public health” and feels that programs should stem from strong research methodologies. “I care about improving children’s health to secure the long-term health of the population.”

Dr. Schaefer’s goals at the Institute are to educate people by integrating scientific findings into personal health programs. People know that they have a choice on how to eat”, says Dr. Schaefer. “But they may not always make the choices that best benefit their personal health.” Enabling them to understand how best to care for their own self is a key aim of personalized health – one that can be achieved at the intersection of research and education.

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