From the US to Australia – Dr Katie Lacy shares her research journey

Our next blog is from Dr Katie Lacy, a Senior Lecturer in Nutritional Science from the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) in the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences.

Her research primarily focuses on preventing child and adolescent obesity, especially though good nutrition. She is committed to promoting evidence-based strategies for moderating energy intake to children, adolescents and their parents.

Katie has been invited to share her research journey.

Click here to view a video of Katie’s top tips to start your research career


Where it all began

My research journey began with making a choice between rats and pigeons. I was an undergraduate psychology student at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States and I had to complete a semester of research as part of my degree. I had chosen to work under the supervision of an internationally-recognised professor but I had failed to realise that this meant I would be working with either rats or pigeons. (In case you’re wondering, I went with rats. I’m not a fan of rodents or birds, but at least rats wouldn’t flap wings in my face.) I have to say this experience didn’t ignite my passion for research, but it did help my understanding of research methodology and led to a great appreciation for research using animal models.


Where I found my passion

What did spark my interest in research was a unit I took called “Obesity and Society”. It was fascinating. It was one of the nutrition units I had taken out of personal interest. Before I knew it, I had completed a minor in nutrition and I realised that I was more interested in nutrition than psychology. I decided to apply to Master-level dietetics programs. While investigating my options at different US universities, I was asked if I’d like to apply for a PhD program.

I needed some career advice and met with the professor who taught my favourite unit. I mentioned that I might have the opportunity to do a PhD under the supervision of Professors Barbara Rolls and Leann Birch. She said that I HAD TO TAKE THAT OPPORTUNITY. And I did.

I undertook a PhD in nutritional sciences at The Pennsylvania State University. My research focused on the effects of energy density and portion size of foods on the energy intakes of preschool-aged children. I led three within-subjects experimental feeding studies at a child care centre. These were challenging and fun studies where we provided carefully prepared and portioned meals for up to 130 children and staff at a time!

As part of my PhD, I had to complete postgraduate-level coursework (common in the US) and I had the opportunity to take extra units for free. I completed all of the undergraduate-level coursework required to become a Registered Dietitian. However, I married an Australian and moved to Ocean Grove, Victoria before doing a dietetic internship and sitting the national exam for dietetic registration in the US.

Once in Australia, I was lucky to get two part-time Research Fellow roles. I was managing a child oral health cohort study at The University of Melbourne and the development of three reports on childhood obesity monitoring at Deakin University. This casual work broadened my research experience and enabled me to connect with researchers in Australia. When my Deakin contract finished, I was given the opportunity to go full time in oral health research at The University of Melbourne or take another short-term contract in obesity research at Deakin. I felt I would get too far away from nutrition and obesity research if I worked full time in oral health (although my dad, a dentist, probably would have preferred that option), so I chose the short-term contract at Deakin. I hoped that this would be a useful step to getting an ongoing job at Deakin.


Life as a Lecturer at Deakin University

The position I had been waiting for came up at just the right time (I had been unsuccessful on a fellowship application) and I somehow managed to get it (despite having a flat tyre on the way to the interview in Burwood)! I joined the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences and the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) as Lecturer in Nutritional Sciences. This position meant that I had much more freedom in my research direction, which also meant that I now had much more responsibility for my research direction.

While I had enjoyed working in the broader area of childhood obesity over the previous couple of years, I really wanted to get back into energy density and portion size research. Unfortunately, the types of studies I did as a PhD student generally cost much more than the grant funding I might be able to secure as an early career researcher, so I needed to adapt. My solution was to use what I knew from experimental feeding studies to develop an obesity prevention intervention for adolescents and their parents. I really liked this idea because it combined my interest in experimental feeding studies with my wish to broaden the reach and utility of this research.

My plan has worked so far. Important feasibility research with adolescents and their mothers was funded by Deakin University’s Faculty of Health Central Research Grant Scheme. The next step is to acquire funding for a pilot intervention.

Adapting has meant I’ve faced a big learning curve, which was manageable with the help of excellent collaborators/mentors Professor Sarah McNaughton and Alfred Deakin Professor Kylie Ball. I’ve acquired new skills in qualitative methods, intervention development and several software programs. I’ve also become an amateur (definitely amateur) food photographer.

Despite the challenges of working in a number of research areas over the years, I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to build my skills through so many different experiences, even if it all started with rats!


Dr Katie Lacy, Senior Lecturer in Nutritional Science

Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN),

School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University



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