With a degree in business and marketing and a career in casinos, Erin McKinley took a circuitous path to nutrition and dietetics. McKinley, an assistant professor in the School of Nutrition and Food Sciences and director of the school’s Didactic Program of Dietetics, started exploring the link between nutrition and health when she had health issues.
A Rhode Island native, McKinley moved to Las Vegas, where her family was residing, after she received an undergraduate degree from Methodist University in North Carolina. As the recession in the late 2000s hit, the casino industry took a downturn.
“I started looking at some alternative things that were of interest to me and encountered some people who were doing things in nutrition but they weren’t necessarily the experts,” McKinley said.
The more she learned, she realized she had a strong interest in being a registered dietitian, but that is not an easy fit for someone with a business degree. The University of Alabama allowed her to take the undergraduate requirements, complete her master’s and do a dietetic internship.
“I did research for my master’s and had really good mentors who saw something in me as far as being able to plan and organize the research,” she said.
McKinley was offered a graduate assistantship to continue at the University of Alabama and pursue a Ph.D. Upon finishing her doctorate, she joined the faculty of the LSU College of Agriculture in March 2018.
By taking an indirect route to her career in dietetics, McKinley said she is well-suited to help students struggling with their own paths. “When students come to me and don’t understand what’s going on, I can tell them that I didn’t either,” she said.
The College of Agriculture has approximately 130 dietetics students. McKinley said one of her goals is to make sure students recognize the program’s rigor. To work as a registered dietitian, students must complete a dietetic internship after they leave the LSU undergraduate program. McKinley said she is proud that LSU has a good match rate with 83% of students matching with one of the internships of their choice.
McKinley teaches two courses. One is professionalism in dietetics, which gives students some of the technical and soft skills they need in the dietetic profession. The other looks at community nutrition, which encompasses any type of nutrition that doesn’t include hospital or food service.
McKinley also conducts research on the psychological aspects of making infant feeding decisions among pregnant women. As part of her doctoral research, she created a tool that measures prenatal breastfeeding self-efficacy among pregnant women.
“A doctor’s office can use it to gauge the conversations they need to have with their patients or for a pregnant woman to see what areas she needs to work on prior to birth,” McKinley said.
McKinley is fine-tuning the scale to see if breastfeeding initiation and later breastfeeding successes can be predicted.
When McKinley made the leap from collecting gambling debts to prescribing healthy diets, she was told she would never use any of the information from her undergraduate program.
“That is totally a lie,” she said. “Running a program requires me to tap into all that I learned about marketing and selling because I’m not just keeping the program afloat as far as accreditation goes,” McKinley said, adding that is also recruiting students and selling her program to potential students and donors as well.
McKinley also serves as chair of the University Council on Gender Equity at LSU and is the president of the Baton Rouge Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Tobie Blanchard is the director of LSU AgCenter Communications and LSU College of Agriculture Communications.
Erin McKinley. Photo by Olivia McClure