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Karen Willis
Graduated: 2002
Major: Nutrition and Dietetics
Pediatric Research Dietitian

Karen WillisChoosing a Major
When she came to Messiah, Karen Willis had no problem selecting a course of study - she knew she wanted "something I was already interested in as an athlete (nutrition) and something that had a strong base of natural sciences." Along with suiting her interests, she felt that the versatility of the nutritional field would provide a wide variety of vocational paths: "whether in relation to disease management or helping athletes obtain their goals, I knew I could be helping others as a dietician."

The Messiah Experience
In the same way that they inspired her choice of major, Karen's personal interests also shaped her involvement with the college and surrounding community. She attributes her well-rounded college experience to her involvement with the women's soccer team, as team commitments challenged her academic schedule yet kept her involved in campus life. She also connected with her field of study as an active member of the Nutrition Committee club, which provided "opportunities to promote nutrition and health awareness and volunteer in the community" by teaching nutrition classes at a community center. She observes, "I was always happy serving and/or educating those that may not have the same resources that I always took for granted," and when she wasn't busy on the soccer field or in the classroom, she tutored inner city youth and volunteered with Soccer in the City, a Harrisburg ministry program in which members of the men's and women's soccer teams played soccer with city youth.

Karen values the critical thinking skills she developed at Messiah, maintaining that they are "essential, every day - from deciphering the scientific research to communicating a decision in clinical practice to the physician writing orders on my patients." More specifically, the scientific background and nutrition courses provided by her field of study, as well as the writing skills cultivated in general courses, have proven invaluable in Karen's vocation. Without them, she concludes, "I would not have been prepared for my career."

Karen considers "having a heart for each patient I see, seeing healing in not just a physical sense but also spiritually and emotionally" as the ultimate focus of her vocation, and she credits Messiah for instilling in her the desire to serve. She had "always felt called to pursue nutrition in the mission field setting," and her senior year J-term course, "Health Care in Developing Countries" with Dr. Phil Thuma, helped her recognize that "God was leading me to explore service in areas of malnutrition, poverty, and disease-stricken Sub-Saharan Africa." The initial exposure subsequently inspired her graduate school experience studying Nutrition and Tropical Medicine in Zambia.

What to Do Next
After college, Karen decided to combine the required one year dietetic internship/national certification program with a Master's degree at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. In a two year program she was able not only to complete the clinical internship that qualified her to be a registered dietitian but also to bolster her education "by taking advantage of their international nutrition program offerings."


• "Credentials may get you to the next level, but passion for what you do is what makes it all worthwhile."
• "Take off your blinders - there is never just one way or one road to take in your career."
• "Put in the time to get the experience you need and keep searching for what gives you the most gratification and fulfillment."

A Typical Day
As a research dietician at the Clinical Research Center of Children's Hospital in Denver, Karen engages in a variety of clinical studies that require her to perform a wide array of tasks: "Any given day I could be calculating nutrient-specific test diets for children in the studies (including HIV, Obesity & Diabetes, Resistant Starch), or performing energy expenditure tests on kids with brain tumors or anorexia, performing growth measurements on the children for their follow-up visits, or counseling families with children just diagnosed with Celiac Disease. I also may be researching the best methods to use for upcoming studies or helping to develop the nutrition component for a new study."

A "Why" Moment
Karen knows that she has chosen the right vocational path every time she is able to share in her patients' success by providing them with the skills and information necessary to make their lives healthier. "It makes me realize how important it is to make the information useful, to give them an easy, take-home message to apply to their real-life situation... so they are able to achieve healthier habits," she says. Karen also appreciates being on the forefront of research in her field, noting that "when something is reported on the news as 'breakthrough' research, yet I have been watching the advancement of the topic for years (or maybe knew the lead researcher in grad school), it's pretty cool to know that I had some of the info ahead of the times."

Regardless of where one's vocation may lead, Karen believes that any career path that promotes the service of others can be seen "as a ministry of 'taking up our own cross' and imitating Christ's servanthood." She says that the opportunities for service presented when she was a Messiah student "made me realize what a heart I have for the community, and how I want to provide low income individuals with the education and skills to be able to make realistic, applicable changes to make healthy choices for their family." Now she volunteers with Operation Frontline Colorado, an initiative that provides instructional classes for low-income families on healthy living and how it can be accomplished on a limited budget.

Dreams Still Dreaming
In the future Karen plans to continue her research in dietetics. She has always hoped to return to Africa for more field research, and recently she was accepted to a position on a nutrition project in Kenya. One of the highlights of her current position is her ability to provide others with new and helpful information, and she plans to continue on the path of instruction by getting her Ph.D and teaching at the college or graduate level.


Find out how other Messiah grads work with children in their career:

Kate Binder, social worker

Malia Meiser, abstinence education director

Katie Lebhar, high school theatre director

Elizabeth Imboden, pediatrician

Profile by Tiffany DeRewal, May 2006


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