This quarter we are grateful to share and introduce BCDRN trainee Rachel Dickens, RD, CDE. Rachel is not only a graduate trainee pursuing her PhD but she is also an accomplished Registered Dietician and a Certified Diabetes Educator. Rachel shares her story of how she came to be interested in diabetes research. Rachel has her own website full of educational resources and healthy plant based recipes for you to try. Learn more about Rachel -The Conscious Dietician- on her website “Food As Medicine“.
Name: Rachel Dickens
Program: Graduate student PhD program
Department/School/Faculty: Exercise Sciences/ School of Kinesiology/ Faculty of Education/UBC Vancouver
Where did you grow up?
My name is Rachel and I was born and raised in Prince Rupert (Lax Kxeen), a small coastal town in Northern BC. I am of mixed-ancestry; my mother immigrated from Hong Kong in the 1970s, and on my fathers’ side I am a member of La̱x Kw’alaams, a Ts’msyen Nation (Tsim-she-yan, meaning “Inside the Skeena River”). La̱x Kw’alaams is located 30km by boat from Prince Rupert, and is derived from the Sm’algya̱x word Laxłgu’alaams which loosely translates to ‘place of the small roses’.
I have been trained as a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator, though the majority of my learning has come from working alongside community. I now currently have the privilege of living and working with the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC) on the unceded ancestral homelands of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, colonially known as Tofino.
What did you study for your undergraduate degree and where did you go to school before UBC?
My formal education was completed at Griffith University in Australia, graduating with a Bachelors in Biomedical Science in 2007 and a Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics, majoring in Public Health, in 2011. After graduating in Australia, I worked in the rural community or Taree (New South Wales) where I started my journey in working alongside Aboriginal Peoples, specifically in diabetes support and prevention.
What got you interested in diabetes research?
I’ve worked as a Certified Diabetes Educator since 2015. Working at a Diabetes Education Centre created the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of individuals living with diabetes. I could see that there was much more work that needed to be done.
I recognize that diabetes was rare in Indigenous communities prior to the 1940s. The loss of land, legacy of residential schools, displacement, trauma, and racist policies have contributed to the disproportionate representation of diabetes in Indigenous communities. As an advocate for food sovereignty and social justice, I hope to raise awareness around and dismantle some of the policies that impact Indigenous peoples’ access to traditional foods. Traditional foods not only provide nourishment for the body, but also for the mind and spirit through the harvesting and gathering, and connection to culture.
Reclaiming traditional foods and practices is an integral part of the Indigenous food sovereignty movement, which embraces identity and history, sovereignty, traditional ways, and cultural practices. Increasing access to these original foods will not only promote health and wellness in Indigenous communities including decreasing the rates of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes. It will also help us all repair our relationships with the land, plants, and animals which provide us with the food we need. For me, I hope that diabetes research will create the opportunity to make meaningful change on a larger scale for diabetes prevention for future generations.
How far along are you in your degree and what do you hope to achieve in 2022 with your research?
I started my PhD in May 2021. Our team of 18 (including knowledge holders, Nuu-chah-nulth community members, NTC staff, representation from the National Indigenous Diabetes Association and academics from UBC, SFU and NWAC) submitted a Letter of Intent (LOI) for the CIHR Team Grants in Diabetes Prevention and Treatment in Indigenous Communities: Resilience and Wellness. We were successful in November 2021 and our Letter of Intent provided funding. Our full grant proposal is due in July of 2022.
So far this year we have been working with two Research Assistants to prepare for a Strengthening Gathering to bring together community members, knowledge holders, people living with diabetes, and those passionate about wellness. This will create a space for dialogue on how our full proposal can work towards bettering diabetes care and prevention within Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. In addition to this we also applied for the recent LOI for the Lawsons Foundation Diabetes Prevention in Youth. If the LOI successful we will be working towards the full proposal in the upcoming months.
Any advice/words of wisdom to share with other trainees about starting grad school or on how you found ways to connect with colleagues?
I feel very fortunate to have a supportive supervisor and committee who have encouraged me to reach out to others in my field. I will be forever appreciative to all the Indigenous academics, students and community members who have graciously gifted their time to offer me words of wisdom and support. Surprisingly (or maybe not) social media has helped me connect with others who are paving the way in Indigenous food sovereignty, broadening my mind to what is possible. I think it is important to not disvalue the importance of building relationships; putting in the time to foster these relationships is vital to meaningful connection. Over the last few years, I’ve met others who have been generous with their knowledge, and have helped me open myself up to a different way of viewing the world. Creating more opportunities for connection in a way that is valuable to both parties helps with reciprocal relationships, which is fundamental to any healthy connection.
The past two years have been a pandemic and travel has been restricted. When travel is allowed, where do you want to go and why?
I am grateful every day to be able to live in a place where I used to come vacation. I love the West Coast and its rugged beauty. When I go home to Prince Rupert I am also reminded that these beautiful temperate rainforests hold so much life, which is grounded in culture. If anything, the pandemic has helped me value my homelands, and the homelands of the Nuu-chah-nulth so much more. If there are opportunities, and invitations, once things open up, I would love to visit and explore some more coastal homelands.
Links to learn more: