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What inspired you to become a nutritionist?

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Wednesday, 09 March 2022.
Tagged: health, healthy eating, healthy lifestyle, nutrition, wellness, writing

What inspired you to become a nutritionist?
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It all started with my Year 10 science teacher! Thanks to her, I really loved the subject of science and managed to do well in it for my last three years of high school.

Now, I realise how fortunate I was. I later discovered that many girls loathe Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Geology and Maths. In fact, anything to do with numbers and scientific jargon. I put this down to poor teaching because, if you can learn the right way as I did (and have a modicum of maths understanding), then the subject is a joy to learn! But that’s just me.

I had the most wonderful and dedicated science teacher for Years 10, 11 and 12. Her name was Sister Emmanuel, because I went to a Catholic all-girls school run by the Sisters of Mercy (or as we girls called them, the ‘Sisters of No Mercy’!).

She was a most accomplished teacher, who built our knowledge gradually and sequentially over those three years. She helped us really understand organic chemistry or the nitrogen cycle, although I do admit I did struggle a bit with Physics (all those scalars and vectors and weird stuff).

What I liked about science and maths was that you had ONE right answer. In maths, for example, when you finished working out a formula, you got a result – which was either right or wrong. Easy. Maybe the correct answer was 165, let’s say. Unlike an essay for English … I never understood why I only got 11 out of 20, because it was so subjective. And I was hopeless at it!

Tackling science at university

 Because I loved the subject, I decided to study a basic Science Degree at Sydney University. I was going to save the world through research and knowledge! My first year was common with both Engineering and Medicine students – except that the Med kids also had to study Introductory Anatomy as a group. We all sat through lectures on Pure Maths, Applied Maths, Chemistry (my love) and Physics.

I also studied Biology, although some kids chose Geology. I guess this was to bring us all up to the same teaching standard, because we’d come from wildly different schools and learning backgrounds.

During this first year, which was made up of lectures and pre-recorded video replays to huge lecture theatres of students, plus three-hour pracs on three of my afternoons, from 2 to 5 pm, I realised that, even though I’d only studied 2F Science, not the higher Level 1, my knowledge base was solid. I should have done Level 1 but, in their wisdom, the good nuns thought that girls didn’t need ‘high-order’ science, or maths for that matter.

After all, we were only marking time until we got married and settled down to domestic bliss! Most of my school friends ended up becoming teachers, but there was no way was I going to.

The nuns were great teachers of the Arts, and the girls at our school excelled at English, History, Geography and Music (subjects in which the nuns were accomplished) and they regularly won top student marks or awards in eisteddfods.

 Year 2 at Uni

 By my second year at uni, I could finally select some of the subjects I was interested in, as long as they made up the required points to qualify me for a degree. I delved into Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry 1, Physiology 1 and Pure Mathematics (which seems useless now but, by golly, did it stretch the mind!)

It was all interesting and there was so much to learn. You had to be disciplined in keeping notes and filing them into separate folders at the end of each week, otherwise, you quickly lost track of what was what. When it came time to study at the end of each term, this organisation paid off, because you could grab a folder of your notes and focus on that.

Remember, this was in the days before you could download a Powerpoint or watch the lecturer deliver the content online. Back then, if you missed a lecture (typically hand-written in chalk on the blackboard), you begged your mates for theirs to copy. It was a tough way to learn – but it worked.

We had some fun pracs in the old sandstone building on campus, which had been purpose-built for the Faculty of Medicine. In one Physiology lab, we undergrads were allowed to dissect mice, stunning them first then injecting anaesthetic and measuring their heart rate. This wouldn’t happen these days.

On to studying nutrition

 I enjoyed my second year but soon realised that there were only two job prospects:

(1) becoming a teacher, which was not something I desired (hey, I’d just finished 13 years of schooling!);


(2) working in a smelly laboratory, where the chances were high that I’d singe my eyelashes over the bunsen burner flame!

Somehow that year, I stumbled over Sydney Uni’s Graduate Diploma of Nutrition and Dietetics (these days, it’s a five-year Master’s degree). This course really resonated with me. Here, I could discover everything about food and diets, while still keeping up with my love of chemistry and biochemistry. I would learn all the compounds that make up food, as well as research different diets and eating strategies.

This was for me; I worked out that all I needed to meet their pre-requisites were Biochem and Physiology. It was my way forward.

Ever since I was 16, I’ve had an ‘obsession’ with diets and dieting. I always thought I was too fat – because I didn’t look like the models in the teen magazines I loved to flip through. I used to come home from school, make myself a snack and flick through those glossy mags. It was my little escape from a ho-hum household and protected upbringing.

So you can see how learning about the composition of different foods and how to combine them to eat for optimum health means you’re no longer worried about being fat.