Lily Yu Lin McNair (class of 2022) has always loved food and cooking, but a degree in nutrition and dietetics wasn't necessarily her goal when she first accepted admission to the University of Arizona's Yuma campus.
"When COVID happened, I realized I didn't want to be away from my family, so I started looking around to see what options I had with the U of A if I was going to stay in Yuma," she recalls. "I knew I wanted to do a health-related degree, but I thought I'd go with something more generic. But there were all these little hints in my classes - like, I took an introductory biology class, but the professor was telling us about the biology of nutrients and how they can be used for disease prevention, and a professor in my chemistry class would talk about the chemistry of food - and that eventually turned into an interest in nutritional sciences."
Once she found her interest, McNair threw herself into nutrition and dietetics wholeheartedly. She served as a preceptor for numerous nutrition courses; spent three semesters as an intern with the Regional Center for Border Health (RCBH), where she has developed evidence-based nutrition materials in Spanish and English; co-founded a new nutrition chapter of MANRRS at UArizona - Yuma, where she serves as the director of mentoring and networking; and volunteers extensively with the Arizona Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AZAND) as the President Elect of her district. She's been honored with several awards, including the Wildcat Distinction Award, Dean's Academic List with Highest Distinction, YumaCats Alumni Scholarship, the Howard V. and Margaret C. Smith Memorial Scholarship, the Arthur J. and Mary Faul Scholarship, and most recently, the Robie Gold Medal.
"Lily's early leadership in the dietetic professional community is uncharacteristic for a college student," says Ashlee Linares-Gaffer, associate professor of practice in the School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness and one of McNair's mentors. "It illustrates her exceptional orientation towards service, responsibility, and professionalism."
As a nutrition and dietetics student, McNair found herself especially drawn to women's health and pregnancy-related nutrition. "I believe prenatal nutrition is a really special area where we can do interventions to affect two generations at once - the mother and the developing fetus," she explains. "We have the chance to empower the patients, who are going through all these physiological changes that they can't control, by educating them about diet and lifestyle changes they can make to have a beneficial impact on themselves and their babies - and potentially, they can even impact the reproductive cells in the fetus, which could benefit a third generation."
McNair has taken the opportunity to explore her passion for women's health education during her internship at RCBH. "My internship experiences have been amazing, because they've given me the chance to put together the things I'm learning about in class with real-world situations," she says.
As an example, she recalls the challenges that come with translating nutrition and health guidelines into culturally relevant documents for border communities. "I remember at one point I was scouring the internet and dictionaries for a translation of 'kidney beans.' I couldn't find one. When I asked around, people said, 'We don't really have a word for that, because that's not something that we traditionally eat.' It was eye opening." She adds that this experience led to her interest in culinary medicine, using food to promote and support health across cultures.
As she looks forward to graduation and her future career, McNair plans to stay close to home. "I think one of the things I realized when I decided to go to the U of A in Yuma was that I really wanted to stay and work here," she says. "I've always found it to be a really special and unique place. There's a lot of need, but there's also a lot of room for development and innovation, room to do things that maybe aren't tried in other places but have huge potential to help people."
Next year, she'll pursue a Professional Science Master's in Applied Nutrition, with an emphasis in dietetics, from the school of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness as she works toward earning her Registered Dietitian Nutritionist credential. She'll also serve as the District President for the Southwest District of AZAND.