September 28, 2022
Nkechi Okpara, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior (HPEB), has been selected to receive the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation’s Commission on Dietetic Registration Doctoral Scholarship. She will allocate some of the $10,000 stipend to support professional development, travel expenses, and the Body Appreciation and Better Eating! (BABE!) Study as part of her dissertation project.
Okpara’s work focuses on helping teenagers appreciate and feel content in their bodies, increasing nutrition knowledge and mental approach to food and eating, and preventing disordered eating among the Black teenage population.
“High school was a safe time for me; I remember how comforting a time it was,” Okpara says. “When I interact with high school students, I feel a sense of ease, so I knew that working with teenagers would be a part of whatever I did with my career.”
The Trenton, New Jersey native studied psychology as an undergraduate at Villanova University. Out on her own for the first time, Okpara lacked knowledge in her own food choices, and over time noticed how food affected her mental and physical states.
This is when she grew interested in studying nutrition. Because her school didn’t offer nutrition as a major, after graduating, she enrolled in the M.S. in Nutrition and Food Science program at Montclair State University.
Okpara spent the year after graduation completing the requirements to become a registered dietitian as an intern at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. In her journey of becoming a registered dietitian, she grew more into the role of leading nutrition education in group settings where she could find deeper connections with individuals. Rather than becoming a clinical dietitian, she knew that getting her Ph.D. would be a better fit as it would allow her to serve by teaching teenage girls through research and teaching nutrition courses at a university.
“I chose the Ph.D. in HPEB program because that was exactly how I wanted to use my nutrition background,” Okpara says. “I want to promote nutrition to the teenage population, to educate them, and help them see behavior changes in ways of eating habits, self-talk, and changed thinking.”
The Norman J. Arnold Doctoral Fellow joined HPEB associate professor Brie Turner-McGrievy’s Behavioral Research in Eating (BRIE) Lab and became immersed in the types of nutritional interventions she hopes to lead one day. As a graduate research assistant, Okpara spends time doing what she‘s good at – working with participants in BRIE Lab studies like NEW Soul and DG3D.
“Dr. Brie has been a big influence on my professional, educational, and career path,” Okpara says. “A lot of what I have learned about nutrition intervention implementation comes from her and the training that I received through her lab. She has also taught me how to prepare for meetings, talks and mentor undergraduates; she’s exposed me to so many opportunities.”
Her research, which she is supporting with a SPARC grant from the UofSC Office of the Vice President for Research, focuses on body image, nutrition, and self-compassion among Black/African American high school girls. In addition, Okpara is mentoring Middle Level Education major (HPEB minor) Claire Elder, who is contributing to her mentor’s dissertation project and conducting her own research with support from a Magellan Scholar Award.
After graduating next year, Okpara plans to complete additional training as a postdoctoral fellow before pursuing a position as a nutrition professor at a research university. Her goal is to teach but mainly focus on research and mentoring. Okpara will study topics related to nutrition education, diets, eating habits and body image among teenage girls.
"My biggest credit goes to God for placing me in positions of opportunity and allowing me to see part of my purpose throughout my educational journey," she says. "I am big on prayer and self-reflection, so for me, I focus on controlling what I can, and allowing God to work in ways I can’t."