Penn State alumni study nutrition at NASA

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a Penn State undergraduate, Allie Cailliau quickly became intrigued while listening to Scott M. Smith, manager for nutritional biochemistry at the NASA Johnson Space Center, describe spaceflight-related nutrition issues.

“I never thought much about the impact of nutrition on spaceflight, and his talk really allowed me to view nutrition as a much bigger subject than just eating healthy and being physically active,” said Cailliau, who earned a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences at Penn State in May.

Smith, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and doctorate in nutrition at Penn State, visited University Park in 2015 as the College of Health and Human Development Alumni Society Distinguished Speaker. As part of his visit, Smith stopped by various classrooms to talk with students about space research, his career, and internship opportunities with NASA.

His visit to Cailliau’s class proved to be impactful for her.

With only one summer between her Penn State graduation and the start of a master of public health program, Cailliau saw a small window of opportunity to potentially experience firsthand all that Smith had described. Cailliau decided to reach out to Smith to learn more about internship opportunities with NASA.

From there, following a rigorous and competitive application process, Cailliau secured a spot for a 10-week summer internship at NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Laboratory in Houston, Texas.

“To me, this experience was one of a kind and will give me great benefits for my future,” Cailliau said. “During my 10 weeks at NASA, I not only got to see the inner workings of NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Lab, I also had the opportunity to listen to and speak with various members of the NASA community, ranging from microbiologists, statisticians, and even flight surgeons and astronauts.”

Specifically, Cailliau worked with the dietary inflammatory index, a measurement of inflammation within the body after consuming different types of food. She analyzed data from a bed-rest study and more recent flight data from astronauts to calculate their inflammatory index.

“The index was developed to compare the inflammatory potential of a person's diet, ranging on a scale from maximally anti-inflammatory, which is good, to maximally pro-inflammatory, which is bad. Typically, unhealthy diets are known to have a pro-inflammatory effect, while healthier diets are associated with anti-inflammatory effects,” she said.

Through this work, Cailliau learned more about data analysis and used graphing software for the first time.

“By the end I felt confident in using new tools,” she said. “I was also able to apply my knowledge from the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State to my project and really understand how certain foods affect a person’s inflammatory index and overall health.”

For Smith, he appreciates opportunities to share with students a unique example of a career in the nutrition field.

“I really enjoy presenting to nutrition students, as they get the underlying importance of the field, and get to see it applied in an environment they likely didn’t imagine,” Smith said. “Motivating a student to the point that they wanted to pursue applying for a NASA internship is outstanding, and really affirms that the message and excitement of what we do here came across.”

Cailliau is currently finishing up her first semester at George Washington University as a student in the master of public health nutrition program.

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Last Updated January 06, 2017