It’s Okay To Be Confused When You First Start College

Russ went to school to become a journalist but took a very different career path.  He shares an honest and detailed account of how his early experience–and a complete 180–lead to the career he was destined for. 
An open mind, an open heart and listening to good advice along the way ….here’s Russ’ story.

Feeling Confused?  Don’t Worry, You Are Not Alone

It was the summer of 1993. The Maple Leafs had just come off the first of back-to-back wild playoff rides, and I was a new high school graduate, ready to leave for Kingston to attend Queen’s University for a BA English. I was convinced I was going to be a journalist, and had worked very hard to avoid taking any math or science courses beyond what was required of me to graduate.

That summer, however, something changed. I started becoming interest in health and fitness.  A friend and I had begun running and weight lifting together during that summer.  I found myself interested in learning about physiology and how to build a healthier body.

So off to Queen’s I went, with 2 dumbbells and a handful of MuchMusic Dance Mix CDs to motivate me.

I ended up on a floor of Governor General’s award winners.  All students destined for law or medicine.  Neither of these careers had crossed my mind. I slogged through my first semester English courses but found myself becoming more interested in my friends’ biology and biochemistry courses than Chaucer.

One afternoon, I decided to discuss this dilemma with one of my English professors, who told me, over a pipe, that if I “wanted to write, then just write. You won’t learn to write sitting in my classroom.  You must travel, and see the world.” I didn’t think this would go over so well with my parents at the time, so I started thinking of other options.  Physiotherapy and physical education were my top 2 choices.

As I looked into the requirements of these programs, my failure to take any science courses in high school came back to haunt me. In order to get into these, I would need (at the time) OAC (grade 13) biology and chemistry.  So I spent half of the next 2 summers in high school taking OAC Chemistry and Biology, and planned out my year carefully to ensure that I took the required English courses I needed to graduate with my BA, but also padded my electives with as many courses I could in the sciences: calculus, immunology, microbiology, biology, and chemistry.

Nutrition Became My Favourite Subject

One of these courses, was very influential: a night course in nutrition.

Quickly, this course became my favourite, as it was an approach to science that had a very real-world use. I spoke with my professor, and wondered what career options were available for someone in nutrition, and learned about the career of a dietitian. I researched schools that offered this training, and had 3 options in Ontario: Ryerson, Guelph, and Western.

I applied to Ryerson and began my second undergraduate degree in 1996.

I share my Queen’s journey with you to stress the lesson this process taught me- keep your mind and your options open.  It’s tough for someone to decide what they want to do with the rest of his/her life at the age of 17—so be prepared to change.

Indeed, Ryerson was for many, a second-career. Its unofficial motto was “sooner or later, you’ll end up here.”  I enjoyed my studies at Ryerson, and felt that I truly belonged, and was doing something I wanted to do.

Keep Your Mind and Your Options Open

With my conversion to a science trainee complete, I noticed that there was still something lacking in most of my student classmates: a fear of numbers and research.

Not many people enjoyed the research methods courses, or the statistics course that was mandatory; but I felt drawn to these. While working on some projects, I read some papers published by Harvard University’s School of Public Health that reported that certain foods or nutrients could increase the risk of cancers or heart disease.  Even neater, they managed to figure out by how much that risk would change per daily serving of a food.

This fascinated me, and was the next seed for my career. I wanted to learn how to do this!

As my research desire grew deeper, I took an upper year course in clinical nutrition taught by a dietitian who practiced at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. I talked to her about my desire to go on to graduate school, and she suggested that before I step into research, I apply to do a dietetic internship, practice as a dietitian for a while, and figure out what I wanted to research. Sounded like sensible advice.

As my Ryerson career wound to a close, I applied for graduate school and dietetic internship positions.  I was fortunate enough to be offered one of both- an internship at St. Mike’s, and a grad school spot at University of Toronto.

I thought hard about this, and declined to go to U of T, instead opting to gain professional training, to learn about what areas of nutrition I liked.

My dietetic internship at St Mike’s was a great experience.  At the time, it was unpaid, and there were 6 of us, learning the ins and outs of food service in the hospital setting , 5-6 clinical areas of nutrition (gastrointestinal disease, nephrology, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, surgery, intensive care, and outpatient counselling for HIV/family medicine) and 2 electives (I did sports nutrition and home care dietetics).

When I was finished, I again spoke with my mentor form St. Mike’s about what areas would be useful for a first job, and she suggested General Medicine, as it would give you the chance to see a variety of conditions.

I was fortunate enough to get a job within 6 months of graduating from internship, at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Toronto, in a general medicine ward. Soon after, I was asked to cover outpatient clinics, and eventually settled in nephrology-where I counseled patients on dialysis.  This was a very challenging position, as people with kidney failure have some of the most serious dietary restrictions as anyone in the hospital. I did this for about a year, but realized that I was very interested in diet and cardiovascular disease. So I started to look also at Master’s degrees again.

I contacted a number of potential supervisors at University of Toronto, and one asked me to come into clinic and volunteer with his studies, as he needed dietitians. So I did. Eventually, I was spending from 7:30 am to 9:00 am at his clinic at St. Mike’s, and then shuttling back across the city to start my St. Joe’s shift. Eventually, I worked out with my supervisor a schedule where I’d work 4 days/week for 10 hours, and take Fridays off a go into the St. Mike’s clinic.

I also applied for my Master’s degree at U of T.  With my professor’s support, I was granted admission, and left my full-time clinical job after 2 years, pursuing a Master’s full-time.

The lesson: don’t be afraid to look for new opportunities, and work with your supervisor to make them happen.

My master’s degree went well, as I learned about how to do research, and could use my skills as a dietitian in the process.  While there, I worked on 2 studies of diet to reduce heart disease risk.  Now… remember that Harvard paper I told you about earlier?

I still didn’t know how they did that. So when I was approaching my graduation date, I decided to figure out how I could learn it. I spoke with my MSc supervisor about this field, which I had since learned, was called nutrition epidemiology, there were only 2 places worth studying it at, and one of them was Harvard. So he agreed to support my application….to be continued.

Read part 2 (Friday!) Russ finishes his story and shares 6 key lessons he learned along the way, working with students everyday he understands more than most the struggles you face.

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Author: Russell de Souza

Assistant Professor, Department of health research methods, evidence, and impact; McMaster University (September, 2017)

Areas of expertise:
● nutrition epidemiology
● clinical nutrition
● systematic reviews and meta-analyses
● design and analysis of randomized controlled trials of diet interventions
● dietary interventions for weight loss
● dietary interventions for cardiovascular risk reduction
● validation of dietary measurement instruments