Dietitians seldom follow the same career path. That’s the beauty of the field—opportunities abound in many areas. Tricia Psota’s career is a prime example of the many roads dietitians can traverse. She was a clinical research dietitian at the National Institutes of Health; held multiple roles at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, particularly those tied to policy and promotion surrounding theDietary Guidelines for Americans; and currently instructs budding health and nutrition experts as an adjunct faculty member at George Washington University. (Psota got her doctorate in nutritional sciences at Penn State University in 2009.)
As Psota explains it, variety is what got her into this field and what has kept her here. She’s now marrying all of her strengths—research, communications, policy, education, and outreach, among others—in her role as managing director at Nutrition On Demand (NOD). In our interview with Psota, she discusses meeting with the team responsible for the Let’s Move Campaign during the Obama administration, her career trajectory, and how misinformation can make its way into our dietary habits.
Prior to becoming a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), did you know what you wanted to do in this field?
I think I always knew what I didn’t want to do more than what I wanted to do. (laughs) Through process of elimination, I knew that I wasn’t going to do something clinical- or food service-specific and that I wanted to be on the research/communications/community side of nutrition and public health.
How were your earlier roles as an RDN tied to those interests?
When I was assistant director of research at the Uniformed Services University’s Center for Health Disparities, I oversaw research, education, outreach, and training activities. In this role, I was involved in the behavioral interventions targeting chronic disease risk reduction through mental and physical health. I also led efforts to develop an interactive health “fair” online and took part in community health events as well. I oversaw training programs for faculty and undergraduate interns about how to conduct research.
While at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), my official position [as a metabolic clinical research dietitian] was all research, but I would volunteer on projects with the education committee. I also ended up taking part in interviews with different journalists and news outlets on a variety of topics. So, I had these sprinklings of other opportunities at these jobs.
What led you to the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP)?
At NIH, while I found the research interesting, I felt like my impact was on a small scale—one person here, one person there—during clinical interventions. When working on policy, you have a broader reach. I wanted to get experience in that area of food and nutrition. A good friend of mine from grad school was working at the USDA and let me know that they were looking to hire people to conduct systematic reviews and support the work of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Those scientific reviews would ultimately inform policy. Knowing I was itching for a new experience that had a broader reach, I applied.
You held various roles there as a nutritionist. What were the highlights?
Working on the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines and working with the best nutrition and public health experts in the world. For someone like me who loves research, science, and critical thinking, to have conversations with these experts was really engaging and insightful. Working with them was an honor.
Helping bring MyPlate to life was another highlight. I switched from the science and policy side of CNPP to the communications side and worked with a team to create various outreach materials, including videos. One video that keeps playing in my head was an animated video about making food fun. The reason it hits home is that my niece probably watched it 500 times. She loved it. To see a project you worked on resonate was awesome.
Also, when I was there, I attended a Leadership Institute Program which let me engage across USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. I got to meet colleagues I didn’t know I had and learned a lot more about USDA in terms of their nutrition assistance programs. I also got to pitch ideas for inter-agency health campaigns to the Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move [an initiative launched by Obama aimed at tackling childhood obesity] team. I later presented MyPlate updates at the last meeting of this initiative. Attendees heard about all the accomplishments across the federal agencies and how far-reaching the initiative was.
What were the challenges in these roles, either getting nutrition policy passed or helping convince the public to adhere to healthier diets?
On the consumer side, it’s fighting misinformation, the primary sources of which tends to be health influencers, people on social media, and celebrities. What they’re saying often is not science based. Budget constraints from the federal government forced us to reply on our national strategic partnerships, which were helpful in amplifying science-based consumer messages related to the Dietary Guidelines.
On the policy end, there definitely were and still are people that have their own agenda they’re trying to push when it comes to nutrition policy and trying to influence the Dietary Guidelines. Sometimes the organizations and individuals who are the loudest aren’t the most accurate or based in science, which is challenging. Over time, we found better ways to manage that from the science and policy side.
I feel lucky that I got to be part of a team that accomplished as much as we did. At CNPP, we were a tiny but mighty organization. At the time there were less than 40 people on staff, and we were responsible for the Dietary Guidelines, the Healthy Eating Index, the USDA Food Plans, and MyPlate, among other projects. There are many impactful projects that come out of that office. I feel fortunate to have worked on those projects with people that have remained close friends and colleagues to this day.
One of those colleagues was Shelley Maniscalco, Nutrition On Demand’s founder. Since joining the team, what do you see as uniquely different about this company?
Two things come to mind. Clients have access to extensive expertise in one place. I have a lot of colleagues who are nutrition consultants and they’re a one-person shop. Having a larger team like NOD allows us to be truly on demand. If you need communications help, we have a person. If you need someone with a science background, we have that as well. We also have the Dietary Guidelines insider perspective. We have three people on the team who were involved with the process of developing or reviewing the science for the Guidelines and/or promotion of them through MyPlate at the federal level. We have staff with experience related to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and USDA Child Nutrition Programs.
It seems that with every role you’ve taken, variety is an important aspect of each.
Absolutely. I have so many interests and I’ve always struggled to pick one thing to focus on. Even when a role was specialized, I would volunteer for other projects to get different fixes. That is also my favorite part about working at Nutrition On Demand. It keeps me on my toes. I get to apply my knowledge in new ways which fosters continual self-improvement. That’s something that’s important to me, personally and professionally.
—Interview conducted by Fred Durso, Jr. Fred is currently pursuing a master’s degree in food and nutrition and the necessary requirements to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. Prior to heading back to school, he spent more than a decade working as a journalist/communications specialist.