Psychology, chemical engineering and dietetics wouldn’t seem to have much overlap.
However, those areas of study came together when three individuals with ties to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga recently met at a national conference held by NASA.
Dr. Chris Cunningham is a Guerry and UC Foundation professor of psychology teaching at UTC.
Kaye Cole graduated from UTC in 1988 with a degree in chemical engineering. She now is president of Great Southern Engineering (GSE), an Alabama-based company that works with NASA on its occupational health programs.
Hanna Bogner graduated from UTC in 2017 with a degree in dietetics from the Department of Health and Human Performance and now works for GSE. In that position, she is a health promotion, wellness and fitness specialist for NASA.
All three attended the June NASA 2023 Occupational Health Operational Update conference in Langley, Virginia.
“We host the conference every year for all 14 NASA centers,” explained Cole, who created GSE in 1991. “All of the occupational health professionals come to that conference to get an update on what’s going on with NASA centers and to hear technical presentations to maintain certifications or just for the educational piece of it.”
At the conference, Cunningham gave a presentation on how COVID impacted occupational health psychology practices around the country, including NASA’s.
“You have some of the most advanced people in this domain trying to make sure that everybody who works there stays safe,” he said, “and we’re not just talking about astronauts; we’re talking about the thousands of scientists and everybody who’s involved in the research labs.”
Cunningham said the wide-ranging careers of the UTC-connected trio at the conference prove that the University’s degrees can be used in a variety of occupations.
“I think it’s helpful to keep reminding students that degrees can take you in a lot of different directions,” he said.
“It’s just so important for our students to see that it doesn’t have to be linear, and it doesn’t have to be immediate. You get the training, you get experience, and then stuff happens.”
Along with working with NASA, Cole’s company also contracts with other firms on such projects as environmental investigations on soil and groundwater contamination and remediation. While she hasn’t been a full-time chemical engineer in her career, earning her degree at UTC taught her valuable habits, she said.
“I learned discipline and just sticking to a problem until you figure it out,” she said. “I’ve always felt like UTC prepared me for the job that I do, even though I don’t do the traditional chemical engineering-type work.
“To get through the engineering program, the instructors really push you. They challenge you to figure out and solve problems, and I think that’s what helps me in everything we do, just being able to solve the problems.”
Although a career as a registered dietician often is the route taken by students graduating with a dietetics degree, Bogner said that wasn’t her desired goal. Faculty and administrators in Health and Human Performance showed her options and advice for other paths, she said.
They helped her get involved with community outreach, including teaching cooking classes at East Lake Middle School and volunteering at Northside Neighborhood House—an economic, emotional and social assistance organization.
“I also was a volunteer for Young Life in Campus Ministries at UTC, so that taught me a lot of planning skills and project management skills, which has helped me a lot,” she said.