Natalie Kea discovered the secret ingredient to making her college experience her own: giving back to those who helped her get to where she is, and to others who want to get there, too.
She's passionate about working with older adults, and finding ways to encourage them to eat when they often do not have an appetite. "Someday, that will be me," she said. "It will be my parents, my grandparents. I want to give back to those who have helped me and those who cannot help themselves."
Natalie found the perfect recipe to lead by example in an intro to nutrition course with Dr. Roschelle Heuberger. In the class, Heuberger, a leading researcher in nutrition and older adults, talked about the effect mental health has on the appetite of older adults. Those with depressive symptoms, especially, experience a loss of appetite or no desire to eat, to the point of malnutrition. Heuberger described her current research of investigating if pet therapy, a psychotherapy for treating depression, would have a positive effect on the appetite of older adults.
In those 16 weeks, Natalie discovered this is where she wants to make a difference. Any doubts she had about her ability to do college-level science melted away. Instead, she saw the role she could have in helping people live longer through better nutrition, and this came with a burning desire to get to work. Her honors senior research project seeks to build on existing research of how mental health affects a person's appetite. She's focusing on whether animal therapy has a measurable impact on appetite, to the point that it may decrease malnutrition.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done," she said. "I love having the freedom to get in there and make it my own."
In spring 2020, she landed an on-campus job as an undergraduate research assistant to Heuberger, conducting interviews with nurses at assisted living facilities and nursing homes who have used animal-assisted therapy. Results have been mixed, with some nurses observing positive mental improvement in patients, while others have not.
Natalie sees the effects of mental health and appetite play out in real life, as part of her off-campus job at the Isabella County Medical Care Facility, serving food. Loss of appetite and no desire to eat are common among patients.
"This research is going to be published, and my name will be there with Dr. Heuberger's," Natalie said. "I never thought that would be possible."