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Led by Inspiration: 2023 GE Professorship Recipient Rickelle Richards

Rickelle Richards, Ph.D., MPH, RDN knows the places the Lord guides us aren’t always the places we expect. Each day at Brigham Young University, Richards teaches large and small groups of students about the principles of nutrition. From general education classes to complex high-level courses, Richards embraces the challenge of teaching students with a wide variety of backgrounds and knowledge bases. For years of dedicated service to the General Education program and its students, BYU awarded the 2023 General Education (GE) Professorship to Rickelle Richards.

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Rickelle Richards outside the Eyring Science Center.

Though Richards has taught at BYU for over 15 years, being a professor wasn’t always her plan. She grew up in Pittsburgh, PA and in various locations in Utah. She received a bachelor’s degree in nutrition science from Utah State University, a master’s of public health at Tulane University in Louisiana, and a Ph.D. in nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Richards chose to study at universities in a variety of locations to gain diverse experiences. While studying, she had many ideas for her career. During her master’s degree, she was an intern at the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia, and she considered a career with the government. She also thought about going to medical school to become a pediatrician and a career specializing in research.

Two years into her Ph.D., Richards received a call from Merrill Christensen, a BYU professor and department search committee head, who asked if she was interested in applying for a teaching position at the university. He had gotten Richards’ name from Utah State University, where she had applied to a Ph.D. program before choosing the University of Minnesota. While she wasn’t looking for employment at the time, Christensen called her back a year later, and eventually Richards came to BYU for an interview. She believes Heavenly Father knew teaching wasn’t in her plans and He led her to BYU through inspiration.

“When I came to BYU, I felt very strongly that this is where I was supposed to be if I was offered the job,” Richards said. “I liked teaching, but I didn’t know how much I would like teaching.”

For Richards, teaching GE classes is a rewarding experience that brings its own unique challenges. For example, teaching 200-250 students in a section makes interacting with students on a personal level inherently more difficult. She knows students in these large groups have varying levels of knowledge and interest. Some students are fascinated by science while others are just fulfilling a GE credit. Richards even teaches some senior science majors in her GE classes who want a more detailed view of nutrition concepts.

Richards works diligently to meet the learning needs of these various groups and enjoys teaching a diverse set of students about a topic that applies to all of their lives. She hopes even if some students don’t have a strong interest in the science of nutrition, during her class their interest will grow. Richards believes taking nutrition as a GE class can benefit all students, regardless of their major. Even when some of the information isn’t retained, the knowledge students gained in the class will improve their lives.

“The thing I hope they take with them is just their ability to be more critical about information that comes their way about nutrition, and then thinking about how it can benefit them and their family into the future,” Richards said. She later added, “there are a lot of extreme ideas out there, but it’s more about moderation and moderate ideas. I hope they also, from this university, connect principles with the Word of Wisdom and how . . . we can be good stewards over our bodies.”

Richards strives for an environment of “active learning,” with meaningful participation from students. She also focuses on “inspiring learning” that encourages revelation as part of the learning process. Over the years, Richards has worked to increase the interactivity of her classes by incorporating technology. To add variety to her classes, she tries to break up segments of lecture with review activities. For her upper division classes, she often gives students credit for diligent effort and provides specific feedback to help them improve their work. By experimenting with a variety of methods, Richards has found what is most effective and refined her classes over time.

“My gratitude and depth of gratitude for this university, the history of it, and what it allows us to do has grown so much over time the more I have studied and read and experienced different things,” Richards said.

It took time and effort for Richards to discover how she could naturally discuss principles of the gospel while teaching, which was unheard of at the institutions she studied at. She believes taking that time is well worth it. To new professors in the same situation, she would recommend “figuring out what works for [them] to bring the Spirit into the classroom.” She added, “I don’t think there is one model, I think you have to find what works for you.”

In addition to her work as a professor, Richards also consistently contributes to a variety of research projects. Her research centers on community nutrition and public health nutrition. She is especially interested in serving low-income populations. Current research topics include food security in college students, the food choices of children when their parents or caregivers are not around them (independent eating occasions), and the effectiveness of the federal government’s Food Security Survey Module among college students and Spanish-speaking households. These projects involve professionals and universities across the country and aim to improve the nutritional experience for populations and individuals nationwide.

Richards also currently serves in a leadership position for the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior and has participated in advocacy work at the federal and state level for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For some of her students, learning how to work with government organizations is part of class curriculum.

“If you want to advocate for more reimbursements for the services you offer, or better services for the clients you serve, you need to have an understanding of how to do advocacy work and how the political process works,” Richards said.

As Richards reflects on her professional journey, she is struck by how connections she made early in her career have had significant and long-term impacts. A fellow nutrition professor and mentor, Lora Beth Brown, received the GE Professorship in 2001. Richards feels honored to be recognized at the same level as one of her role models. Receiving the call from BYU, seemingly out of the blue, was the result of another past connection, and she also recalls other instances when these connections impacted her professional life.

As an undergraduate student, Richards participated in a long-term study as part of a USDA multistate research team alongside a Ph.D. student. Years later as a professor at BYU, a colleague recommended she join a specific research project he thought might be a good fit for her skills. Upon looking into the project, she realized it was the same project and the Ph.D. student was now a fellow faculty member. She remembers many similar examples and believes the Lord has guided her path.

“These are not coincidences,” Richards said. “To think about the people who have come back into my life that I have met over the years, it’s not a coincidence . . . It’s fun to see those connections, being at this stage and looking back and seeing those professional connections that have been made to get me here.”

Each year, the BYU GE Professorship award recognizes one professor who exemplifies exceptional service to GE through outstanding teaching, new course or program development, and long-term commitment to these efforts. Candidates are nominated by their colleges each spring, and the recipient is announced every fall at University Conference. The professorship is for three years and includes a salary stipend of $4,000 with an additional $4,000 annually for research.