Honors Student Research Spotlight: Natalia Benik
Fresno State food science and nutrition senior Natalia Benik has channeled passions for agriculture, cooking and outdoor activities into first-hand experience teaching Fresno State student-athletes how nutrition can enhance their athletic performance and health.
The Jordan College honors research cohort member is also wrapping up a project studying how social media can affect Bulldog student-athletes’ self-image and dietary habits.
Learn other ways she serves the campus and community in this recent interview.
Q: Why did you choose to attend Fresno State?
Benik: “I chose Fresno State because I originally wanted to study plant science, and my dad (Doug Benik) had great things to say about his experience as a plant science major here. I’m extremely grateful that I chose Fresno State, as we have one of the most highly regarded dietetics programs in the state. The staff and faculty I’ve met while here have been instrumental in helping me discover my career path, and I couldn’t be more grateful to be a Bulldog!”
Q: Did any other of your family members also attend Fresno State?
Benik: “My mom, Diana, attended Fresno State and graduated with a BA in Graphic and Interior Design. My younger sister, Alina, is currently a freshman in the Craig School of Business Scholar Program.”
Q: Describe your graduate program research project.
Benik: “As a student currently enrolled in the JCAST honors program, my research partner Meghan Eoff and I have been conducting research on the influence of social media use on college athletes’ levels of self-objectification and, consequently, their dietary habits.”
Q: Why did you pick that topic, and how will this help others?
Benik: “I chose it because eating disorders are prevalent in athletes and are on the rise worldwide. The online nature of school, work, and almost all other events due to COVID-19 has led me to spend more time on social media, and I know the same is true for many other college students. As a nutrition student and sport nutrition assistant on campus, I wanted to look into how time spent on social media is affecting athletes’ eating patterns. We plan to use our findings to help athletes develop the best social media habits possible so that they can enjoy their healthiest lives and perform their best.”
Q: Which faculty member are you working with, and what type of guidance are they giving you?
Benik: “I’m working with Dr. Lisa Herzig (Ph.D, RD, CDE), the director of the Fresno State Dietetics Program. She has been immensely helpful in teaching me about the research process, about writing a thorough literature review, and about planning our research methodology.”
Q: What are some of the most important things you've learned from this research?
Benik: “While we have not yet collected results, a deep dive into the literature on this topic has taught me that self-objectification is prevalent in men and women alike and may be exacerbated by certain types of social media images. Self-objectification can negatively impact mental health and eating patterns, which may decrease the quality of life for athletes and/or negatively impact their athletic performance. Our study will look into the effects of viewing social media images on self-objectification and eating patterns in college athletes.”
Q: After graduation, what's your potential next career step, and how do you plan to use your degree?
Benik: “I’m currently working toward a career in sports medicine as a physician assistant. I plan on using my nutrition degree and chemistry minor to help my future patients achieve lasting health from a holistic perspective.”
Q: How will this research help you on your career path?
Benik: “This research will help me conceptualize the role social media plays in athletes’ mental and physical health. In the future, I’ll be able to use our findings to help athletes bounce back from injuries in the healthiest way possible, as well as help them form sustainable training habits and dietary habits."
Q: Talk about any internships or part-time jobs, and what types of tasks you did generally?
Benik: “I currently work in the Fresno State sports nutrition department as a sports nutrition assistant. I provide athletes with pre- and post-workout, snacks, meals, and/or hydration before and after practice and during games; complete body composition measurements; create and distribute education materials (including those on our Instagram @bulldogsportsnutrition); and work at the nutrition lounge in athlete village (pre-COVID).”
Q: What skills or experiences did you gain from the internship that they can apply to your potential career options?
Benik: “Working as a sports nutrition assistant has helped me realize just how important it is for athletes to fuel and hydrate properly. Watching our Fresno State athletes reach the top of their game despite this year’s challenges has motivated me to provide the best nutritional and medical care I can for my future patients so they can excel at their sport and do what they love.”
Benik: “During this past football season, I had the privilege of helping our football athletes fuel and hydrate on the road during away games. Being able to help during practice, home games, and away games has given me an even greater appreciation of Sports Medicine. After football season, I began shadowing Dr. Gomez, one of our Fresno State one of our sports medicine doctors at SPOC; my shadowing experience is what inspired me to pursue a career as a PA (physician assistant).”
Q: Do you receive any type of Jordan College scholarships?
Benik: “Yes, I’m grateful to have received the Ag One RCO Ag Credit, Inc./Glen N. Janzen Scholarship and the Ag One Mary K. Alexander Scholarship. I’ve received the Smittcamp Family Honors College Scholarship as well.”
Q: What types of ag-related clubs are you involved with on campus?
Benik: “I’m currently a member of the Student Nutrition and Dietetics Association on campus. I also served as the student representative for the Arboretum Committee from Jan. 2018-Jan 2020, for which I created projects that involved students in the Arboretum, created a Twitter account, and managed social media content. I’m also currently a student member of the ASI University Affairs Committee, and have been for two years.”
Q: What is your background in agriculture before you started at Fresno State?
Benik: “My grandfather was in charge of equipment purchasing, bottling, barreling and packaging at Christian Brothers Winery for 35 years. My dad, Doug Benik, has continued the tradition of agriculture as a table grape and raisin grower for 35 years in Reedley, CA (he grows persimmons and pomegranates as well). He also insures a number of valley growers as a crop insurance agent and the owner of Dalena/Benik Insurance Services.”
Benik: “I grew up helping my dad prune vines, deliver grapes to clients, and work on crop insurance projects. I feel blessed to know the value of hard work because of the experiences I’ve had in agriculture.”
Q: Are there any other interesting notes about yourself to include?
Benik: “I also enjoy singing and have sung on the worship team at The Well Community Church and a number of Fresno State Athletic events. I was also formerly involved in Rotaract Club and CRU Club on campus.”
Q: Have you had to overcome any challenges or obstacles to get to where you are today that have shaped you are?
Benik: “When I first started college, I really had no clue what I wanted to do or major in. I knew that I wanted to help people and somehow make a difference in my community, but I couldn’t seem to find my niche. I changed my major three times, and I was terrified that I would never find a fulfilling career. During this time, I leaned on my faith in God and the advice and support of my parents, Dr. Attar (my organic chemistry professor and the director of the Smittcamp Family Honors College) and my friends. When I discovered the field of nutrition, I knew I had found the right fit for me. Now I’m excited to use my nutrition degree and chemistry minor to help me become the best PA I can possibly be. I also want to thank Dr. Herzig for all her guidance and support, she is the best!”