When Taylor Vail’s father was diagnosed with diabetes more than a decade ago, the news shocked the family. “We all thought we were healthy,” Vail said. “But we realized that the things we thought were healthy were not.”
Her dad, who is healthy today, changed his diet, and he and his family got better at detecting the sugars hidden in food and reading nutritional labels looking for sodium, carbohydrates and chemical sweeteners.
As her family learned to make healthier choices, Vail’s curiosity about nutritional health was sparked. At Bowdoin, where she is majoring in biology, that interest has continued to grow. Last summer, she returned to Los Angeles, where she is from, and interned with Young Folks Urban Farmers, helping to develop an urban farm for a school that had lost its salad bar to budget cuts.
This summer Vail interned at the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts University’s Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. The experience has cemented her desire to pursue a career in the nutritional field. After graduating from Bowdoin, she said she would like to attend a dual masters programs in public health and nutritional science, as this would combine her love of science and of working with people. “It just seems to fit, and every year I become more confident about this decision,” she said.
I am just so grateful that I am learning so much about so many different areas.”
—Taylor Vail ’14
To work at the lab this summer, Vail received a Strong/Gault Social Advancement Internship grant from Bowdoin’s funded internship program. The grant program allow students to pursue otherwise unpaid internships to explore potential career paths.
At the lab, Vail assisted scientists with three studies focused on better understanding the causes and cures for obesity.
The largest of the three projects involves measuring the caloric content of popular meals at seven different kinds of restaurants, from American to Thai, in Boston, San Francisco and Arkansas. The study is collecting this nutritional data to potentially make the argument that if posting calories at restaurant chains — which will soon be required by the FDA — helps diners make healthier choices, the same should be done at smaller restaurants, Vail explained. Bringing these numbers to light might also help restaurants see where they can cut unnecessary fats and calories.
Besides helping identify restaurants for the study, Vail measured the meals, which, after the lab treats them, are transformed from recognizable food into a sand-like substance. (To test the calorie content of the meals, the lab takes a one-gram pellet of this substance and puts it into a bomb calorimeter. This measures the temperature change of the water surrounding the bomb, prior to the explosion of the sample. The calorimeter is then able to use the temperature change before and after exploding the pellet of food, as well as some standardization calculations, to determine the amount of calories in a sample. The idea of bomb calorimetry is based on the definition of a calorie, which is the quantity of heat required to raise the temperature of one gram of pure water by one degree Celsius.)
The second study Vail worked on involves pregnant women on track to becoming overweight or obese. Some of the women in the study are put on a high-fiber, high-protein diet developed by Vail’s supervisor. The women and babies are followed for a year after the birth date. “There are so many complications with overweight or obese women during pregnancy,” Vail said. “We’re trying to see if this [diet] will help them.”
Vail’s role in this project was to recruit subjects. She visited local hospital’s ob-gyn units to talk to patients there, explaining the potential benefits of following the diet and receiving nutritional guidance. She also helped fine-tune the diet by providing more specific recommendations for the food the women should be buying.
The third study involves measuring the metabolic rates and body fat percentages of healthy men between the ages of 45 and 70. “That study is collecting lots of data from them to find out what they are doing right,” Vail said.
Being involved in so many endeavors at the lab, including a side project on food and inflammation, exposed Vail to many angles of food and health science. “I am just so grateful that I am learning so much about so many different areas,” she said in an interview earlier in the summer. “I am working on my public speaking skills; I’m learning how to find resting metabolic rates and learning how to recruit patients for a trial — these are so important for my future goals.”