Dietetics Professor Champions the Science of Food

To commemorate National Science Week and National Women’s Month, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science is honouring its female scientists through a Wonder Women in Science campaign, highlighting women who are passionate about their fields, are pioneering innovative research and development, and are examples to women following in their footsteps towards careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Professor Suna Kassier, Academic Leader of Teaching and Learning in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences and Associate Professor of Dietetics and Human Nutrition is an expert in the field of public health, where she focuses on infant and young child nutrition, obesity, body image and food security.

Kassier, who joined UKZN in 2007, grew up with a passion for reading cultivated by a maternal aunt, and during her high school years enjoyed Biology, encouraged by a supportive educator. She excelled at Biochemistry and Physiology in her undergraduate studies at Stellenbosch University, where she met her husband of 32 years in a first-year Physics class.

Kassier’s passion for dietetics was spurred by data collection while conducting research on infants with acute and chronic diarrhoea. She completed a master’s at UKZN and a PhD at the University of Cape Town, presenting results from the latter at three international conferences and a national conference, as well as to the Human Sciences Research Council and the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health.

‘Nutrition-related lifestyle diseases are changing the global disease profile in developed and developing countries,’ she said. ‘South Africa has the second highest prevalence of obesity on the African continent, with 24.7% of school-aged children being overweight, while 14.2% of infants are born with a low birth weight.’

Kassier has prioritised science outreach, regularly writing pieces for community and national newspapers, including recent articles in the Independent on Saturday, the Weekend Argus, and Pretoria News Weekend. While the importance of STEM fields is well known, she suggests that secondary school teachers should remember their pivotal role in inspiring young learners to not only choose science subjects but to pursue them with passion.

In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, Kassier conducted four webinars for UKZN Extended Learning related to COVID-19, nutrition and lifestyle. The author of a guide for students on eating healthily on a limited budget, Kassier also participated in a Zoom session on this topic with students from the College of Health Sciences in conjunction with Student Counselling.

She said that while the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted her carefully planned research activities, it has taught her to build flexibility into deadlines and personal goals, and to prioritise contact with loved ones, even if separated by distance. She has achieved a work/life balance by applying self-discipline and time management.

Kassier’s proudest achievements include sole authorship of a chapter in a 2019 book on approaches to colorectal cancer, and the research of students she has supervised, such as nutrition in HIV-positive kidney donors and recipientsbody image and weight loss practices amongst female UKZN students, and management of moderately malnourished children. She also reflects with pride on master’s graduates she supervised who went on to successful internships.

Kassier is the President of the International Life Sciences Institute South Africa, and a member of the Food, Nutrition and Hygiene Committee in UKZN’s Campus Health Project. She is supervising student research on the metal content of foods cooked in artisanal cookware, the development of a scale to assess infant Body Mass Index-for-age, and evaluation of the growth monitoring and promotion programme for infants under five.

She hopes to leave a legacy of inspiring lifelong learning, and motivating students to be the best they can be.

Unlike many STEM arenas, Kassier’s is a female-dominated one, posing the challenge of inspiring more young men to choose a career in dietetics and pursue postgraduate studies in the subject.

Kassier believes that women bring a different perspective to science and are well-placed to be role models and mentors for younger scientists. She advises young female scientists to be cognisant of rare opportunities and to take them up.

Kassier the Superhero

Kassier said that if she had any superpower, she would choose humour, compassion and handing out hugs.

‘We are often unaware of the extreme difficulties and hardships people around us face, and a single gesture of kindness or a laugh shared can make a difference to the life of someone in mental, physical or spiritual need.’

Her theme song would be We will rock you by Queen, and her go-to gadget would be her constant companion – her laptop.

If she had to pick a team of “Avengers” to take on the world, her husband, children and students that energise her with their passion for research would be by her side.

When she needs a retreat, you’ll find her in her garden weeding and taking care of her orchids, and avoiding her own personal “kryptonite”; drinking too much coffee and being unable to say “no” to anything.

See Kassier take on the #toosieslide dance challenge, view the striking photos from her photoshoot and discover other Wonder Women In Science on our website: wwis.ukzn.ac.za

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Sashlin Girraj