Jennifer Woo Baidal, MD, MPH

Jennifer

Woo Baidal

MD, MPH

I want to live in a world where, if you’re on one side of the city, country, or globe, you don’t see these stark health differences for children.

 

Jennifer Woo Baidal is Director of Pediatric Weight Management and an attending physician in the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition at Columbia University Medical Center. She is also Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University.

As a second-generation American living in Los Angeles, Jennifer Woo Baidal witnessed childhood health disparities firsthand.

“I grew up on the side of the city where kids were getting ketchup as their vegetable at school,” Jennifer says. “When I went to UCLA on the other side of town, I realized I didn’t have the same options as kids in wealthier communities. I saw that these kids have access to healthier nutrition options, which was a stark contrast to my upbringing—not because people didn’t care, but because those were the only options available.”

Jennifer’s paternal grandparents immigrated from China, first to Mexico and then the U.S., and her mother’s parents came to the U.S. from Mexico. Living in an underserved, minority neighborhood in Los Angeles, her grandparents had a child die because they could not afford to seek health care.

“That knowledge instituted in me a drive to promote health equity and ask how do we achieve health equity? How do we provide an equitable start for children?” Jennifer says. “I want to live in a world where, if you’re on one side of the city, country, or globe, you don’t see these stark health differences for children. Is that realistic? I don’t know, but every day when I wake up I think: How can I help make child health better?”

After completing her undergraduate education at UCLA, Jennifer became interested in child health and nutrition, particularly in underserved areas where disparities in obesity rates are apparent. From 2011-2014, 14 percent of white children age 2-19 developed obesity, compared to 19.5 percent of Black children and 21.9 percent of Hispanic children. While participating in research training with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Washington D.C., she began volunteering as an EMT. Jennifer realized that she loved the combination of research and on-the-ground patient interactions, which inspired her to enroll in medical school at Harvard. While completing her pediatric residency, Jennifer became involved with the non-profit Proyecto Pastoral in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, which serves low-income Mexican and Central American families. Jennifer developed interventions at their early childhood education center to promote child nutrition and healthy activity. Realizing that she wanted to evaluate the efficacy of these programs as well, Jennifer decided to get her MPH.

With her interdisciplinary background in clinical work and public health research, Jennifer’s work at Columbia University focuses on preventing childhood obesity and its health complications, particularly in disproportionately burdened populations, such as racial-ethnic minority and low-income neighborhoods.

“A high proportion of children have obesity,” Jennifer says. “Each year that passes, I feel we have the opportunity to shift the needle by making the healthier choice easier for people.”

Partnering with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, MassGeneral for Children, and Harvard School of Public Health during her fellowship, Jennifer implemented and evaluated a multilevel, multi-sector approach to reduce childhood obesity in 2 to 12-year olds. The team introduced five evidence-informed interventions in primary care, WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), school and afterschool settings, and community sectors. Using these existing platforms, Jennifer found they were able to improve body mass index (BMI) outcomes and reduce their obesity risk factors as well as racial-ethnic disparities in childhood obesity among children in WIC.

“That’s where I’m hoping to leave a lasting impact—in developing and fortifying where prevention is most promising and to work in early life to improve child health for all children,” Jennifer says.

Currently, Jennifer works with WIC in New York to observe risk factors for obesity in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life to identify population-level interventions that could help to reduce the risk factors, such as excess gestational weight gain and rapid infant weight gain.

The guidance clinicians have for obesity from the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends evidence-based services to primary care physicians. Their guidelines suggest screening children ages 6 to 12 for obesity and, if the children are at risk, delivering intensive  behavioral interventions to reduce their BMI scores. In terms of evidence, there is little evidence  for effective ways to prevent and treat obesity in younger children, Jennifer notes.

In a study she conducted in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan, Jennifer found that many parents of infants were confused by the lack of health recommendations from clinicians. Out of 280 families with infants, 66 percent of infants were drinking sugar sweetened beverages. While the American Heart Association recommends no sugars before the age of two, marketing in many low-income areas can mislead parents. With few dietary guidelines, Jennifer says it is difficult for families to see through the smoke of what’s healthy or unhealthy.

Another barrier to reducing obesity risk in the population with which Jennifer works is getting families the support they need. While Jennifer often provides referrals to SNAP or WIC, families must navigate the system alone. On top of that, it’s difficult for many families to come to regular appointments at Jennifer’s clinic, as this often requires taking time off work, traveling via car or public transit, paying for parking, and long waits—all of which may not be feasible for low-income parents.

“That’s a missed opportunity to link families with existing programs that might be helpful to them,” Jennifer says. “Moving forward, I want to focus on how we can integrate existing systems and evidence into day-to-day practice. If clinics and WIC, for example, are on the same page, we have a lot of potential opportunities to intervene not just for the babies, but for the parents.”

Receiving the New Connections grant soon after finishing her MPH was crucial in helping to sharpen her research, Jennifer says. With the grant and its focus on mixed methods research, Jennifer was able to bridge the gap between clinical work and public health and policy research.

“Meeting other New Connections grantees has helped me to develop collaborations,” Jennifer says. “I have upcoming publications that have come from those relationships. Since receiving the grant, I have come into my own and moved my stream of research forward.”

The Details

Title: Director of Pediatric Weight Management at Columbia University Medical Center; Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University.

New Connections Year: 2016

New Connections Status: Program Alumna

Leah Robinson, PhD

Leah Robinson, PhD, is a professor of Movement Science at the University of Michigan.
Leah Robinson, PhD, is a professor of Movement Science at the University of Michigan.

Leah

Robinson

PhD

I want to use my research to inform educational and health policies that could affect the health and well-being of children across the U.S. and across their lifespan.

 

From a young age, Leah Robinson was a versatile athlete, playing basketball, volleyball, and track and field. Following her fascination with athleticism and what the human body can accomplish, Leah continued to play volleyball at North Carolina Central University, while studying physical education and biology. Through a research project, Leah discovered that her passion was in research that studied the movement of the human body.

“I loved discovering how to help the human body work and move more efficiently,” Leah says. The research led her to continue her education, earning her Masters and PhD in Exercise Science and Human Motor Behavior from Ohio State University.

While teaching at Bucks County Community College, outside of Philadelphia, after completing her Master degree Leah increasingly became interested in how preschool-aged children move. As a professor at Bucks County, she integrated the on-campus pre-school program with the courses she taught in the health and physical education department. “It was during this course when I first saw children struggling with basic movement skills—like running and jumping,” Leah says. In working with these children to encourage more proficient movement skills, Leah meshed her undergraduate training in physical education with her research interests in sports and movement to create a new research trajectory: investigating the design and implementation of evidence-based motor skill interventions and the effect of motor skills on promoting health-enhancing physical activity and developmental health in young children.

Currently, Leah is investigating the effects of a motor skill intervention, the Children’s Health Activity Motor Program (CHAMP, which she started as part of her dissertation work at Ohio State University)  and its impact on child health through two NIH-funded grants, which provide funds for longitudinal studies of nearly 300 pre-school-aged children. In the first study, Leah and her research team will examine how the motor-based interventions of CHAMP affect children’s motor skills and physical activity from pre-school through second grade—Leah and her team just finished collecting data for the first year of pre-school. In her second project, Leah and the team will examine the effect of the CHAMP intervention on self-regulation in children heading to kindergarten along with the link between these motor skills and self-regulation. Self-regulation—control over our thoughts, feeling, and actions—is a predictor of school readiness in children. Preliminary research Leah conducted with smaller samples showed that this motor-intervention promoted self-regulation skills, such as listening to the teacher and controlling impulses. Children who did not receive the intervention saw a decrease in their self-regulation skills over 10-12 weeks.

“We need to investigate this further over a longer duration and with more extensive measures of self-regulations, because it’s crucial that children are prepared and ready to learn in kindergarten,” Leah notes. The team is also interested in learning whether the intervention can improve learning-based outcomes, such as children’s attention and self-perceptions.

“Early results have shown that this intervention is effective in promoting physical activity and positive self-perceptions in preschoolers, which are two key factors that we want children to develop early and maintain throughout their lives,” Leah explains.

The link between physical activity and school outcomes is a key component of Leah’s future research agenda. Children today are encouraged to participate in more sedentary activities, so this often means they spend less time playing and learning motor skills or engaging in physical activity. One study in the UK found that children spent half as much time playing outside as their parents did.

“Play appears to be disappearing from childhood and it needs to return,” Leah says. “I’m interested in learning more about the effect that decreasing outdoor playtime has on children. Why aren’t they playing outside? This lack of play could impact how children learn to socialize and interact with peers. We need to explore this further.”

At the same time, physical education programs in public schools also have been cut. In a 2012 study of San Francisco, only 20 percent of schools met the state requirements for physical activity, which, in California, is 20 minutes a day—a pattern seen across primary and secondary schools throughout the U.S.

“I want to stress the importance of movement in young populations, especially with physical education programs disappearing and reduced amounts of time dedicated to play (outdoor recess) in public schools,” Leah adds. “I want to use my research to inform educational and health policies that could affect the health and wellbeing of children across the U.S. and across their lifespan.”

Looking back, Leah says the New Connections grant, which she received in 2011, was influential in shaping her career, particularly in terms of understanding how educational and health policies can influence and shape an individual’s experiences to become an agent of change. She also stays in contact with friends from her cohort and says the connections formed within the program are powerful, which is why she continues to volunteer as a mentor and speaker for the program’s many professional development events.

“My New Connections friends and I have formed social media groups where we stay in contact and disseminate information,” she says. “You always meet people at universities and conventions who know one another from the program. Whether they are from your cohort or another, you will meet a New Connections fellow and it’s great to know that we have this bond as part of a larger group.”

These bonds are important in creating support for minority and early career researchers, she says. “I am a big advocate of the program, and I look forward to seeing how RWJF is going to continue offering this sort of training and mentorship with all of its grant recipients.”

The Details

Title: Associate Professor and Program Chair of Movement Science at the University of Michigan

New Connections Year: 2012

New Connections Status: Program Alumna

Sarah Gonzalez-Nahm, PhD

Sarah

Gonzalez-Nahm

PhD

My heritage motivates me to want to help people in whatever way I can.

 

As a nutrition researcher and a breastfeeding mother, Sarah Gonzalez-Nahm understands the many structural factors that affect a mother’s choice to breastfeed. Though breastfeeding is not the best choice for every family, regardless of socio-economic status or community, new moms should have the agency to decide for themselves whether they want to breastfeed their babies. Slack maternity leave policies and inflexible work climates, however, have removed that choice for many families—particularly those living in disadvantaged communities.

“People want to make the best choices that they can, but their choices are constrained depending on who they are, where they live, and where they come from,” she says. For Sarah, whose research focuses on maternal and child health—particularly nutrition and breastfeeding—these structural constraints are most evident in underserved populations, like the Latino and immigrant communities she has worked in since graduate school.

While some women choose not to breastfeed for personal reasons, without strong maternity leave policies for salaried and wage workers, many mothers in underprivileged communities are left without the opportunity to choose what’s best for the child and their family. As a result, there are significant racial and socioeconomic disparities in breastfeeding rates. African American women are 2.5 times less likely to breastfeed than white women, and a third of Latina women begin supplementing their baby’s diet with formula as early as the second day of life.

In addition to not having paid maternity leave, many workplaces do not have policies that support breastfeeding, Sarah adds. While the Affordable Care Act stipulates a blanket policy requiring employers to provide a “reasonable” unpaid breaktime for breastfeeding mothers in a private space, this language is vague and dependent on the employer’s interpretation. An employer can argue that the person is essential to the operation of the workplace and that taking frequent breaks would be a detriment to the workplace. On top of that, taking unpaid breaks may not be feasible for people living paycheck to paycheck, as pumping takes a significant amount of time.

“We’re not creating the ideal space for women to be able to breastfeed and go back to work,” Sarah comments. “We’re not making breastfeeding the easy choice.”

Removing these political and economic barriers to breastfeeding is the thrust behind Sarah’s research and advocacy for better maternal and child health. As a Latina woman, Sarah is deeply passionate about promoting health in immigrant communities where health choices are often dictated by outside factors.

Though she was born in Florida, Sarah spent eight years of her childhood living in Ecuador. While Sarah says she was fortunate not to experience many of the struggles and discrimination associated with Latino immigration to the U.S., she knows many family members and friends who have been affected by the social, political, and economic obstacles facing Latino immigrants.

“When you’re a Latino in the U.S., no matter where you come from you have a connection with other Latinos,” Sarah explains. “Latinos want to help each other. My heritage motivates me to want to help people in whatever way I can.”

While Sarah’s roots motivate much of her work in maternal and child health, those roots also inform her research, allowing her to become an outspoken proponent of change. “Because of my language skills and being a Latina myself, I connect with other Latinos more easily. They see me as a source of information, and as someone who can raise the visibility of issues pertinent to Latinos. As a Latina with an advanced education, I realize that what I do matters.”

Following her Master’s degree, Sarah worked as a nutrition counselor for the Durham County Health Department, working in an underserved area of Durham, North Carolina. There, she encountered the frustrating choices many families were forced to make about their health because of uncontrollable structural factors tied to immigration, maternity leave, and food affordability. Her frustration drove her to pursue a PhD in maternal and child health so that she can use her research to inform policymaking to help remove the complex socio-economic barriers facing underserved communities.

Sarah sees her New Connections grant research as the first step toward advocating for more equitable maternal and child health policies in the U.S. In her study, which is still in the analysis phase, Sarah assesses the breastfeeding policy landscape of each state, examining legislation that might affect breastfeeding—such as indecency laws, public breastfeeding laws, hospital laws, and maternity leave laws. She evaluates each law to identify whether it was created with equity in mind, considering socio-economic status, race or ethnicity, or the needs of nontraditional families. Her study uses two qualitative methods to assess each law. First, she conducts keyword searches for mention of race, ethnicity, income, or socio-economic status. Then, she uses a published framework from Brandeis University that further assesses equity in policies.

“What I’m finding so far, although it’s not definitive yet, is very few of these laws are created with equity in mind,” Sarah says. “It’s not really a surprise, but it’s never been formally documented. This provides a baseline for researchers to approach policy makers and highlight how this is inequitable and what we can do about it.”

Moving forward, Sarah wants to promote stronger maternity leave and breastfeeding policies with her research. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world where employers are not required to offer paid leave to new mothers. While eligible workers may receive 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child, this is not feasible for many mothers who live on the economic margins. This lack of a national mandate can have lifelong impacts on maternal and child health, Sarah notes, as infant nutrition and wellbeing can shape health trajectories later in life.

“It’s hard for women to make the choice to breastfeed because of these constraints and the policies in place in this country,” Sarah says. “If you’re unable to take an unpaid maternity leave, or if you only get 6-12 weeks maternity leave, it’s really hard to go back to work and have breastfeeding established.”

Sarah hopes to help make breastfeeding an easier choice for women, and she says the New Connections grant has given her a starting point. “Getting the RWJF grant has been a great opportunity for me. This research provides a strong baseline. I want to keep going and use the research to influence policy and bring on change.”

The Details

Title: Postdoctoral fellow, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

New Connections Year: Current

New Connections Status: Junior Investigator

Caryn Bell, PhD

Caryn

Bell

PhD

I want what I do to inform social justice efforts to address those social and cultural issues that lead to disparate outcomes.

 

As a public health-trained professor in the African American Studies department of the University of Maryland, College Park, Caryn Bell has always been attuned to social justice issues at the intersection of race and public health.

“In public health we have always included race as a variable, but being in African American studies has allowed me to take a deep dive into culture, social issues, social justice issues, discrimination, and segregation,” Caryn says.

Growing up in Raleigh, NC, Caryn noticed the socio-economic and health disparities between white and black people. Attending one of the state’s top public schools, she noticed how race affected graduation rates, and within her family, she saw how race can affect health behaviors, treatment decisions, and interactions with the healthcare system.

In college, Caryn initially studied chemistry, but she realized she wanted to focus her research on health, race and social justice. “I wanted my research to be more directly impactful,” she said. “I wanted to see more of the effects of my research. I want what I do to inform social justice efforts to address those social and cultural issues that lead to disparate outcomes.”

Following graduation, she worked as a research assistant at the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions and went on to earn a PhD in social and behavioral sciences. Now, as a professor, researcher, and member of the 2017 New Connections cohort, Caryn focuses on African American health, particularly higher socio-economic status African Americans who still have poorer health outcomes than their white peers.

Caryn says research often focuses on health in urban and low socio-economic status communities, sometimes conflating socio-economic status and place with race. While those communities often have worse health outcomes, African Americans who live in suburban communities and have college degrees may have lower health outcomes than those of whites with the same socio-economic status.

A study comparing affluent white and African American people found that the African American respondents had higher odds of developing hypertension, mental health issues, and obesity.

While Caryn says understanding why African Americans have poorer health outcomes than their white peers is important, she wants to do more with her research.

“For me, it’s just not enough to understand. I want whatever I do to contribute to coming up with solutions to achieve the best health for African Americans across the socio-economic spectrum, but particularly for higher socio-economic status African Americans who may have been overlooked by researchers and policy makers,” Caryn says.

As part of her New Connections grant, Caryn is researching health outcomes for African Americans in the suburbs, which is an understudied population.

“We think that if we’ve made it to the suburbs, we’ve made it in general. That’s not always the case. I’m looking at the suburbanization of poverty—how gentrification and displacement from urban areas has led to poverty in the suburbs,” Caryn said, adding that suburban African Americans are often segregated, living in less affluent areas outside city limits.

of concentrated suburban poverty. In Hempstead, which is 92 percent black and Latino, the median income is $52,000, but in mostly white Garden City the median income is $150,000. Even in the suburbs, place affects health, Caryn says. Living in pockets of concentrated poverty can affect health outcomes, such as obesity rates.

Her New Connections study is longitudinal, looking at how changes in demographics over time affect health outcomes in U.S. counties and considers the role of race and place along with urbanization.

“In the long term, I want my work to inform interventions, social policy, and social justice efforts. I would love for it to inform social justice efforts to not only improve health, but to address the social determinants that lead to disparate health outcomes for higher socio-economic status African Americans.”

Caryn’s commitment to social justice is evident through her research, and she says New Connections has helped encourage her to push her research beyond journals. “During the winter [2018] symposium, I connected with people doing similar research and having similar experiences—how do we get tenure, how do we deal with pressures? It was helpful to connect with other researchers about the difficulty of pushing research forward and having an impact.”

The Details

Title: Assistant Professor of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park

New Connections Year: Current

New Connections Status: Junior Investigator

Recent Publications, Peer-Reviews Conferences and Invited Presentations:

  1. Bell, C. N., Thorpe, R. J., Bowie, J. V., & LaVeist, T. A. (2018). Race disparities in cardiovascular disease risk factors within socioeconomic status (SES) strata. Annals of epidemiology, 28(3), 147-152.
  2. Bell, C. N., Thorpe, R. J., & LaVeist, T. A. (2018). The Role of Social Context in Racial Disparities in Self-Rated Health. Journal of Urban Health95(1), 13-20.
  3. Bell, C. N., Bowie, J. V., Thorpe Jr, R. J., & Levine, D. M. (2017). A spatial analysis of race, local health-promoting resources and preventable hospitalizations. Preventive medicine105, 149-155.
  4. Thorpe, R. J., Bell, C. N., Kennedy-Hendricks, A., Harvey, J., Smolen, J. R., Bowie, J. V., & LaVeist, T. A. (2015). Disentangling race and social context in understanding disparities in chronic conditions among men. Journal of Urban Health92(1), 83-92.

Kelsie Okamura, PhD

Kelsie

Okamura

PhD

I noticed early on in my childhood that there was a disparity between some of the kids I grew up with because of the supports that were afforded to me versus some of the other families that were struggling.

“I noticed early on in my childhood that there was a disparity between some of the kids I grew up with because of the supports that were afforded to me versus some of the other families that were struggling.”

During her time as an undergraduate at the University of Hawai‘i, Kelsie Okamura studied Psychology because she genuinely wanted to help people. Kelsie grew up in the rural plantation town of Waipahu, on the island of O‘ahu. She could see the sugar mill from her grandparent’s backyard. It was a lower and middle-class community—an environment that could not always promote children’s physical and psychological health.

“I noticed early on in my childhood that there was a disparity between some of the kids I grew up with because of the supports that were afforded to me versus some of the other families that were struggling,” Kelsie said.

Though Kelsie’s interest in Psychology was broad, she quickly found a way to translate her childhood experiences of youth health disparities when she was hired by a Professor as a research assistant studying Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and youth evidence-based practices.

The research clicked with Kelsie, and after she finished her undergraduate studies, she continued with the research, following the professor and the study to UCLA. Kelsie then returned to Hawai’i to earn her Master’s degree and PhD in Psychology, focusing on therapists’ characteristics of evidence-based implementation, such as knowledge. In her post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, however, Kelsie studied evidence-based implementation from a systems approach, researching the intersection of implementation and policy context. She returned to Hawai‘i in 2017 and is now an Evaluator at Hawai‘i’s Department of Health in the Child and Adolescent Health Mental Division and just finished teaching her first Child Treatment graduate level course at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

Kelsie is fascinated by Clinical Psychology and community health. Her research has focused mostly on evidence-based practice because of its clinical innovation in implementing treatments for young children and teens in communities nationwide.

“We have these best practices in community health, but often we’re asking a lot of the kid, the ecology and the family around them. Accounting for the context in which some of these practices are being implemented is really important. That’s the thrust behind my research—understanding context and communities and how that impacts implementation.”

Contexts are crucial to providing the right supports through youth psychology, Kelsie says. There are state and city government cultures, social contexts, and organizational and therapist contexts. Most important, though, is the context of an individual child and his or her family. “We’re learning that youth and families are very complex in community mental health. There are many cultures that intersect here—school, friendships, ethnicity, and community. Having a genuine curiosity about youth and family perspectives can help with understanding some of the reasons youth behaviors are maintained and treatment can be tailored to address these challenges. In Hawaii, we have a wonderful amalgamation of cultures and races that influence symptoms, so approaches have to be tailored to meet their needs.”

As part of the 2017 New Connections cohort, Kelsie’s work expands on the systems-based research she conducted at the University of Pennsylvania. Working with an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, University of San Diego, and the University of Hawai‘i, Kelsie is using systematic review software to summarize the implementation strategies of evidence-based practices in youth mental health systems.

In studying systems across the U.S., Kelsie hopes to empirically “unearth” the best  implementation strategies for youth mental health systems. Mental health systems often choose implementation strategies because of political mandates, finances, or proximal factors, but these may not be the treatments that work best within a given system. Kelsie says her research takes a “deeper dive” into where and why systems have worked.

One such system is the state of Washington, which has implemented evidence-based policies on everything from behavioral health to criminal justice. The state implemented the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP), which, with attention to evidence-based practices, pinpoints what services work for citizens to craft more effective social policies. For example, in 2012 the WSIPP reviewed its programs in juvenile rehabilitation, child welfare, and child mental health along with national research on evidence-based practices. The state used the information from this review to increase the number of children accessing evidence-based treatment and improve training, data maintenance, and overall program operation. Kelsie says systems like Washington provide a model for policymaking and evidence-based practices.

In a recent paper published in Frontiers in Public Health, Kelsie’s team analyzed the cost effectiveness of implementing evidence-based practices, which can be expensive, as implementation of new practices requires training therapists. Due to their cost, evidence-based practices are not always mandated or incentivized by states, but the cost metric analysis developed by Kelsie’s team identified a range of costs for the implementation of different practices, meaning some less expensive practices can be more easily implemented in systems than previously thought. Kelsie hopes this analysis, along with greater community input, can better inform policymakers and lead to policies that incentivize evidence-based practice more frequently.

“We’re noticing that trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy has been implemented across various systems, and that likely has to do with Congress and other initiatives,” Kelsie said. “It’s those bigger, systematic, federal changes that trickle down into state and city level systems. It’s nice to see that policy is driving this implementation.”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which was initiated by Congress in 2000 to create trauma informed systems, is the energy behind the recent push for trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. The Philadelphia Alliance for Child Trauma Services (PACTS) has been successful in implementing these treatments, training therapists and increasing rates of screening and diagnosis of PTSD. From 2014 to 2016, the percentage of children with PTSD treated by the PACTS network jumped from four percent to 31 percent. In Hawai‘i, Kealahou Services—which operates under the Hawai‘i Department of Health’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Division where Kelsie is a lead evaluator—is a leader in trauma-informed and culturally appropriate care for girls struggling with diverse trauma issues and at risk for further victimization. The program’s gender and culturally responsive care has not only improved client outcomes after 6 months but contributed to other Hawaiian health organizations by providing trauma-focused training.

While her New Connections grant has afforded Kelsie the time to focus on this study, it has also helped her identify colleagues with whom she could collaborate, such as with another cohort member from Hawai‘i, Lehua Choy. “It’s nice that we keep in touch. It’s nice to have someone to reach across to.”

The Details

Title: Lead Evaluator, State of Hawai’i Department of Health’s Child And Adolescent Mental Health Division

New Connections Year: Current

New Connections Status: Junior Investigator

Recent Publications, Peer-Reviews Conferences and Invited Presentations:

  1. Okamura, K. H., Orimoto, T. E., Mah, A. C., Slavin, L. A., Rocco, S., Shimabukuro, S. K., Michels, M. S., & Nakamura, B. J. (under review). The Help Your Keiki website: Increasing youth and caregiver awareness of youth psychosocial mental health treatment. Hawaiʻi Journal of Medicine and Public Health
  2. Becker-Haimes, E. M., Okamura, K. H., Baldwin, C. D., Schmidt, C., Wahesh, E., & Beidas, R. S. (under review). Understanding the landscape of behavioral health pre-service training to inform evidence-based practice implementation. Psychiatric Services
  3. Okamura, K. H., Jackson D., & Nakamura, B. J. (under review). Multilevel predictors of specific practices derived from the evidence-base in youth community mental health. Evidence-Based Practice in Child and Adolescent Mental Health.
  4. Becker-Haimes, E. M., Williams, N. J., Okamura, K. H., & Beidas, R. S. (under review). Interactions between clinician and organizational characteristics as predictors of evidence-based practice use. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research.
  5. Okamura, K. H., Skriner, L., Becker-Haimes, E. M., Adams, D. R., Becker, S., Kratz, H. E., Jackson, K., Berkowitz, S., Zinny, A., Cliggitt, L., & Beidas, R. S. (under review). Perceptions of evidence-based practice among consumers receiving Trauma Focused-Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Evidence-Based Practice in Child and Adolescent Mental Health.
  6. Okamura, K. H., Orimoto, T. E., Nakamura, B. J., Chang, B., Chorpita, B. F., & Beidas, R. S. (revise and resubmit). A history of youth psychosocial treatment outcome literature: Looking back to move forward. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.
  7. Okamura, K. H., Hee, P. J., Jackson, D., & Nakamura, B. J. (2018). Furthering our understanding of therapist knowledge and attitudinal measurement in youth community mental health. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research. DOI: 10.1007/s10488-018-0854-1
  8. Okamura, K. H., Wolk, C. L., Kang-Yi, C. D., Stewart, R., Rubin, R. M., Weaver, S., Evans, A. C., Cidav, Z., Beidas, R. S., & Mandell, D. S. (2018). The price per prospective consumer of providing therapist training and consultation in seven evidence-based treatments within a large public behavioral health system: An example cost-analysis metric. Frontiers in Public Health, 5(356), 1-8. DOI: 10.3389/fpubh.2017.00356

Kevin Ahmaad Jenkins, PhD

Kevin Ahmaad

Jenkins

PhD

It’s a sobering thing to watch people around you not only get sick, but pass away from things that could be preventable.

It’s a sobering thing to watch people around you not only get sick, but pass away from things that could be preventable.”

Kevin Ahmaad Jenkins was 11 years old when his mother was diagnosed with renal disease. He vividly recalls a doctor telling his mother that she was “on his time now” and that if a kidney came in the middle of the night, he would not get out of bed to do the surgery.

“It was in that moment that I saw inequity happen,” Kevin says. “It’s a sobering thing to watch people around you not only get sick, but pass away from things that could be preventable.”

At 17, Kevin became a print journalist. During that time, he won two national awards and covered Destiny’s Child’s emergence on the national music scene. He still has a picture of himself with Beyoncé, both only 17 years old. As an entertainment journalist, Kevin became an announcer for the Durham Bulls minor league baseball team and the basketball, football, and band announcer for North Carolina Central University. He was also the first weekend lottery host in North Carolina.

In 2007, Kevin’s career took a “hard left.” As a broadcaster, Kevin often supported fundraisers and advocacy for public health, racism, and other community issues, but he felt he was not using his writing and academic skills to their fullest. He decided to pursue a Master’s degree in history at Florida A&M University, studying the health patterns and medical access of newly freed Black people in Florida in the late 19th century. For his PhD, Kevin drew from memories of his mother’s kidney disease and focused his research on racism in medicine and how it affects people of color today.

“274 people are killed every single day in health care that look like I do because of racism,” Kevin said, citing a 2009 paper that found that 100,000 Black Americans die prematurely every year due to health inequity. “[Racism] is not some kind of boogeyman, but something that is legitimately responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people.”

As a 2017 New Connections Junior Investigator, Kevin is researching how psychosocial stress affects Black people living with chronic kidney disease. According to the National Institutes of Health, Black patients are four times more likely than their white counterparts to develop kidney failure, and research shows that racial inequity has resulted in poorer outcomes for Blacks, who are less likely to be evaluated for and undergo kidney transplant surgery. Kevin’s research through the grant seeks to connect the effects of mental health, stress, and racism on kidney disease.

Along with his New Connections research, Kevin is exploring various aspects of kidney disease, racism, and medicine through several other projects. The Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion, through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, recently awarded him a grant to examine experiences of race, racism, and psychosocial stress for Black men living with kidney disease, “to tie down what it means to deal with racism and stress and how that impacts people living with chronic disease,” Kevin says.

With his forthcoming book, Hue Process, Kevin hopes to tackle racism and medicine from a researcher’s perspective. He aims to help researchers understand racism, using statistical applied models, rather than theory alone, to quantify racism.

To bring his research to a wider audience, Kevin is developing a documentary with rapper Chubb Rock and other celebrities. “So much of our work gets caught in the tower and it never gets out of here,” Kevin says. “We’re bridging the gap to talk about health disparity in the Black community. We have to do stuff that’s going to get to the average person if we’re really serious about eradicating health disparities.”

Though Kevin has not yet completed his New Connections-funded research, he says the grant has already been influential in helping him do the work he loves.

“Every paper is like a track on an album, I feel like I’m dropping number one hits right now because of New Connections,” Kevin says. “It puts a lot of promise in front of me to know that my next steps are going to be some great ones.”

The Details

Title: Vice-Provost Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Pennsylvania

New Connections Year: Current

New Connections Status: Junior Investigator

Recent Publications, Peer-Reviews Conferences and Invited Presentations:

Brushwood, DB, Knox, C, Liu, W, Jenkins, KA. (2013). “Evaluating Promotional Claims as False or Misleading.” American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy.

Jackson, JL, Barnes, RJD, Jenkins, KA. (forthcoming) Contemporary African America.  New York University Press.

Jenkins, KA. (forthcoming) “A Son of Health Disparities.”  Annals of Internal Medicine.

Weech-Maldonado, R., Hall, A, Bryant, T, Jenkins, KA, Elliott, MN. (2012). “The Relationship Between Perceived Discrimination and Patient Experiences with Health Care.” Medical Care .

Bethany M. (bee) Coston, PhD

Bethany M. (bee)

Coston

PhD

I am a survivor of violence and sexual assault, so that deeply motivates me to continue my work. I’m especially passionate about working at the intersections of my various identities, so not just survivors of violence, but those who are at most risk for violence and its consequences.

I am a survivor of violence and sexual assault, so that deeply motivates me to continue my work. I’m especially passionate about working at the intersections of my various identities, so not just survivors of violence, but those who are at most risk for violence and its consequences.

Throughout their life, Bethany M. (bee) Coston has grappled with intimate partner violence, family violence, and structural violence, and has witnessed the impacts of those traumas on mental and physical health. Identifying as bisexual, nonbinary, and disabled, bee feels strongly connected to these communities and has dedicated their research to the violence and trauma inflicted upon women and LGBTQ+ communities.

The lack of research surrounding LGBTQ+ communities, intimate partner violence, and the effect of that violence on LGBTQ+ health, motivated bee to complete their Master’s and PhD in Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies and to study violence experienced by LGBTQ+ people, particularly those also harmed by other structural inequalities.

Expanding Conversations about Violence and Relationships

Through their current research, bee hopes to expand conversations about who experiences and what causes intimate partner violence.

“For the most part, the violence that people experience every day in their lives is emotional, psychological—control or manipulation,” bee explains. “Though those are the really pervasive forms, you’re often experiencing multiple forms at once. I want to broaden our conversation of what violence looks like. What is a healthy relationship? In light of the current social conversations taking place, what is consent? What constitutes sexual violence? There are a lot of ways that people can be violent in relationships. One size does not fit all.”

bee’s research, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, indicates that—when narrowing the perpetrators to dating and sexual partners—74.77 percent of gay men and 79.41 percent of bisexual men experience intimate partner violence and that 80 percent of lesbian women and 94.12 percent of bisexual women experience this victimization. bee has also learned, from community work and personal experience, that LGBTQ+ people can sometimes internalize homophobia/transphobia, which can contribute to rates of intimate partner violence.

“We often believe what society has told us, that we’re unworthy,” bee explains. “I hope to expand our conversations about what happens when we internalize anti-LGBTQ+ feelings and—importantly—that it’s not just straight people or cisgender people who are internalizing anti-LGBTQ+ feelings and enacting violence. We’re also doing it to ourselves and to the people we love.”

Supporting Healing for LGBTQ+ People

As a 2017 New Connections Junior Investigator, bee’s research focuses on how victims of violence seek alternative means of healing and find ways to build resilience and how these methods can be incorporated into traditional healthcare. According to the Williams Institute,  LGBTQ+ people are less likely to address their trauma through traditional medicine often because of the lack of LGBTQ+ specific resources, legal exclusions for same-sex couples, or the fear of discrimination or outing themselves.

“They go to community organizations, if they exist, and those organizations are not always well equipped to handle instances of violence—they’re not always staffed with therapists,” bee says. “But more than that, even community organizations are often out of reach for rural queer people, poor queer people, queer people of color, and so on. My question is: If we don’t have competent and relatively easy health care access, what are ways we can heal and come out on the other side?”

For many LGBTQ+ people, nontraditional healing practices, like mindfulness, acupuncture, and yoga, can promote healing, and bee argues these methods should also be integrated into mainstream healthcare. While people may be diagnosed and treated for depression, anxiety, or PTSD by clinicians, this doesn’t mean that their trauma has been cured. Nontraditional mental health practices can have “measurable and meaningful outcomes for survivors of violence,” bee says.

Using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, bee is examining bisexual and non-monosexual* women and their healthcare utilization rates following violence (physical, sexual, emotional, control and/or stalking) by an intimate, dating, or sexual partner, looking at who goes to traditional providers and who seeks alternative providers or methods. Most of the research currently available, including from those sources referenced in this article, commonly attributes low healthcare usage in the LGBTQ+ community to sexuality and/or gender identity, but bee thinks it’s more complex. They are examining other identity categories through the survey, such as race ethnicity, age, education level, income and economic resources, location, immigration status, indigeneity, and disability.

bee says their status as a New Connections grantee has “already opened the door for me to do the work that I have wanted to do. It’s also been really great to network with people in New Connections. If you have work that’s important and meaningful you shouldn’t be isolated in doing it.”

* Non-monosexual women are women who have had sex/are interested in having sex with other women but don’t necessarily identify as bisexual.

The Details

Title: Assistant Professor of Health and Queer Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University

New Connections Year: Current

New Connections Status: Junior Investigator

Recent Publications, Peer-Reviews Conferences and Invited Presentations:

Forthcoming. Richard S. Henry*, Paul B. Perrin, Bethany M. Coston, and Jenna M. Calton*. “Intimate Partner Violence and Mental Health among Transgender/Gender Nonconforming Adults.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence. Submitted 28 Oct 2017. Manuscript ID: JIV-17-729. Accepted 28 Dec 2017.

Forthcoming. Megan Sutter*, Annie E. Rabinovitch*, Michael A. Trujillo*, Paul B. Perrin, Lisa Goldberg-Looney*, Bethany M. Coston, and Jenna M. Calton*. “Patterns of intimate partner violence victimization and perpetration among sexual minority women: A latent class analysis.” Violence Against Women. Accepted 4 Nov 2017.

Forthcoming. Bethany M. Coston, CasSandra Calin*, and Micky Jordan**. “Queering Pride to Center the Voices of People of Color,” in Kamden Strunk (Ed.), Queering the Deep South: Research on Queer Studies and LGBTQ Lives in the U.S. Southeast. New York: Information Age Publishing.

Bethany M. Coston. “Power and Inequality: Intimate Partner Violence Against Bisexual and Non-Monosexual Women in the United States.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence. Submitted 15 Apr 2017. Accepted 17 July 2017. Online First 29 Aug 2017. http://journals.sagepub.com/eprint/FnaMIgSnBhUtZWDk5MpJ/full

Journal indexed in ‘MEDLINE’ (PubMed), Impact Factor (2016): 1.940 (Position 15/58 in ‘Criminology & Penology’; 30/80 in ‘Psychology, applied’).

Daheia Barr-Anderson, PhD

Daheia

Barr-Anderson

PhD

I want to better understand the factors that influence obesity in the African-American community. I don’t want to just have the conversation; I want to create action in these communities.

I want to better understand the factors that influence obesity in the African-American community. I don’t want to just have the conversation; I want to create action in these communities.

Growing up, Daheia Barr-Anderson always knew she wanted to make a difference. Being from rural South Carolina, she was constantly aware of the health and economic disparities within her community.

Since those early days, Daheia has spent her life trying to understand the determinants of health and how intervention can prevent people from experiencing disease.

Bringing Yoga into Health Disparities Research

Daheia’s passion for health goes way back. As a child, she would tell her mother her dream was to be a women’s health doctor. As she got older, Daheia discovered her true passion was physical activity epidemiology.

“I was a very active child growing up and even as an adult, so as soon as I discovered this line of work, I knew it was my calling,” she says.

After completing her master’s degree in epidemiology from the University of South Carolina, Daheia started a research project that examined the health disparities between U.S.-born and foreign-born blacks. The main difference she found was U.S.-born blacks suffered from negative health outcomes and engaged in more unhealthy behaviors than foreign-born blacks. Among the area of inquiry was the amount of physical activity.

In another study, Daheia examined how physical activity could be used to treat a variety of illnesses and chronic conditions. She has incorporated her personal love of yoga to help reduce stress and positively affect blood pressure and physical activity in overweight African-American women.

“I want to continue building on the practice of yoga, because it has a larger impact than just moving your body,” Daheia notes. “The mind-body connection with the deep breathing can create a calming effect that, in this current political climate, can help to address the high levels of stress and anxiety people are experiencing.”

Making Strong Women Stronger

Through her research, Daheia has discovered that African-American community health is extremely nuanced.

“We are a population that’s really complex,” she says. “Income is usually a protective factor for negative health outcomes, such as overweight and obesity, but high-income African-American women are highly susceptible to obesity. It is sometimes referred to as ‘strong woman syndrome,’ which means we take care of everyone but ourselves.”

Helping African-American women make healthier decisions is Daheia’s personal and professional goal. She also wants her work to help introduce policies that benefit the community around issues like physical activity and access to healthy food. In her work, Daheia has observed racial segregation when it comes to housing, which has made it difficult for people to access reasonably priced healthy foods.

“You shouldn’t have to come from money to be healthy,” she says.

Modeling healthy behaviors within a family, she says, is likewise critical, as eating habits and the value placed on exercise moves through the generations. When parents are active and healthy, their children are more likely to be as well.

Creating Lifelong Connections

In 2009, Daheia received her first research grant from the New Connections program to begin connecting the dots between women’s health and their activity and food choices. From the start, she was drawn to the network of other scholars.

“I love being connected to such a strong network that truly is invested in not just ‘talking the talk’ but ‘walking the walk,’” Daheia says.

In attending meetings, Daheia connected with other junior faculty, seasoned mentors, and New Connections staff.

“The program provides support for scholars from disadvantaged backgrounds,” she adds. “I can’t put into words how valuable that support was for me.”

The Details

Title: Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota, School of Kinesiology

New Connections Year: 2009

New Connections Status: Junior Investigator

Recent Publications, Peer-Reviews Conferences and Invited Presentations:

Bramante CT, King MM, Story M, Whitt-Glover MC, *Barr-Anderson DJ. Worksite Physical Activity Breaks: Perspectives on Feasibility of Implementation. Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation. In press. Accepted August 2017. Journal’s 2016 IF=0.715.

*Senior author and served as Dr. Bramante’s MPH thesis advisor.

Barr-Anderson DJ, Flynn JI, Dowda M, Taverno Ross SE, Schenkelberg MA, Reid LA, Pate RR. The modifying effects of race/ethnicity & socioeconomic status on the change in physical activity from elementary to middle school. Journal of Adolescent Health. In press .Accepted May 2017. Journal’s 2016 IF=3.612.

Hales SB, Grant B, *Barr-Anderson DJ, Turner-McGrievy GM. Examining the impact of an online social media challenge on participant physical activity and body weight in the United States. Sport in Society. 2016;19(10). Journal’s 2015 IF=0.50.

*Research collaborator with Dr. Hale (assisted in research design, data collection, data interpretation and manuscript revisions)

Turner-McGrievy GM, Moore WJ, *Barr-Anderson DJ. The interconnectedness of diet choice and distance running: Results of the Research Understanding the NutritioN of Endurance Runners (RUNNER) study. International Journal of Sport Nutriton & Exercise Metabolism. 2016;26:205-211. Journal’s 2014 IF=2.442.

*Research collaborator with Dr. Turner-McGrievy (assisted in research design, data collection, data interpretation, and manuscript development and revisions)

Forthofer MC, McIver K, Saunders R, *Barr-Anderson DJ, Pate RR. Associations between maternal support and physical activity among 5th grade students. Maternal and Child Health Journal. 2016;20(3):720-9. Journal’s 2014 IF 2.24.

*Research collaborator with Dr. Forthofer (assisted with research design, data interpretation and manuscript revisions)

Enrique Neblett

Enrique

Neblett

PhD

I want to be a visible role model of what students of color can become, no matter their socioeconomic status. If a young black kid from modest means can become a college professor, I can help change the paradigm of who an academic researcher is.

Growing up in East Orange — a predominantly African American suburb of Newark, New Jersey Enrique Neblett credits his strong work ethic and core education values to his mother, who was an educator. However, it wasn’t until he attended a predominantly white institution in seventh grade that he started realizing what would become his research passion and life’s work. As he recalls, “I was one of the few black students there. I didn’t know it at the time, but issues of race and class were very different from what I was accustomed to in my home environment.” 

Pursuing a Career to Help Others

Years later, Enrique attended Brown University, where he became intrigued by clinical psychology; specifically, the psychology of race, class, and gender. He realized that combining these concepts with his lived experience could lend to a promising and versatile career in teaching and research — and help people at the same time.

Upon completing his Bachelor of Science in psychology, Enrique began working with racial and ethnic minority youth at Prep for Prep, a nonprofit organization in New York City that supports students of color through educational opportunities. For Enrique, serving as a counselor for 70 middle and high school students marked the real start of his career.

“That sealed the deal for me. I realized that I loved helping people,” he recalls. “I wanted to investigate what factors contributed to people coping in different ways and some doing better than others.”

With this goal in mind, Enrique earned a Master of Science in child psychology from The Pennsylvania State University and a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan. It wasn’t always an easy road. He remembers the agonizing disappointment of receiving a C on a paper on African American child development for a course in which he had been excelling until that point. He also felt isolated, and like he had no one to turn to for support.

Yet, these experiences served as a motivational turning point that fueled his passion. Enrique developed expertise in the very same area in which he had written that “C” paper, and is now an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and lab director of the African American Youth Wellness Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Finding Support in the Midst of Isolation

Receiving a New Connections research grant in 2010 not only brought credibility to Enrique’s work, but also provided him with a support system and sense of belonging. Through the program, Enrique has enjoyed connecting with scholars from other disciplines at different stages of their careers.

“My training is in clinical psychology, which doesn’t always have an explicit public health focus,” he explains. “One of the great things about New Connections is that it brings together people from a variety of disciplines. I felt very welcomed, and I gained new confidence in my ability to work with scholars across fields.”

Enrique also hopes to offer support to students of color who may feel a similar sense of isolation that he felt. When he attended Brown, there was only one black professor in the entire psychology department. As a result, he now underscores the value of visible role models of color in academia. Enrique is acutely aware of his own role as a visible role model, and is committed to helping youth of color succeed academically.

Strengthening Communities through Research

Enrique centers his research on issues of race, racism, and mental health well-being among African American families. Among his recent projects, he is conducting a longitudinal study that observes the influence of racial experiences on the mental health trajectories of African American students at a predominantly white institution — the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — over the course of their four undergraduate years. Recognizing that much information on African American youth is deficit-based, instead of resilience-based, Enrique uses his research to assess black youth resilience, racial identity, and parental socialization as assets to strengthening black families.

Looking ahead, Enrique would like to improve mental health access in communities and prepare parents with resources to talk to their children about race-related experiences. He also would like to develop mental health interventions that eradicate health disparities stemming from racism. He hopes to have a lasting impact on the people that he has been privileged to study and learn from.

“Right now, that’s what gets me fired up and what I love to do. I want to contribute scholarship and have an impact. I want to have people say ‘Wow, that work really impacted the lives of communities and students,’” he attests.

The Details

Title: Associate Professor, Psychology and Neuroscience; Lab Director, African American Youth Wellness Laboratory, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

New Connections Status: Past Grantee

Recent Publications:

  • Jones, S. C. T., & Neblett, E. W. (2016). Future directions in research on racism-related stress and racial-ethnic protective factors for Black youth. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/15374416.2016.1146991
  • Neblett, E. W., Jr., Sosoo, E. E., Willis, H. A., Bernard, D. L., Bae, J., & Billingsley, J. T. (2016). Racism, racial resilience and African American youth development. Person-centered analysis as a tool to promote equity and justice. In S. S. Horn, M. D. Ruck, & L. S. Liben (Eds.) & J. Benson (Series Ed.), Advances in Child Development and Behavior: Equity and justice in developmental sciences (Vol. 2): Implications for young people, families, and communities, 51, 43–79. doi: 10.1016/bs.acdb.2016.05.004
  • Neblett, E. W., Jr., Bernard, D. L., & Banks, K. H. (2016). The moderating roles of gender and socioeconomic status in the association between racial discrimination and psychological adjustment. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 23, 385–397. doi: 10.1016/j.cbpra.2016.05.002
  • Jones, S. C. T., & Neblett, E. W. (2016). Racial-ethnic protective factors and mechanisms in psychosocial prevention and intervention programs for Black youth. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 19(2), 134–161. doi: 10.1007/s10567-016-0201-6

Lauren Au

Lauren

Au

PhD, RDN

“Nutrition means much more than just food and eating; it means a whole lifestyle. Nutrition and lifestyle changes can prevent diseases and save lives, and I want to be a pivotal part of that work. That’s what keeps me motivated.”

From Dentistry to Dietetics

A lifelong San Francisco Bay Area resident, Lauren pursued a pre-dental major during her undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Though she didn’t realize it at the time, she was gaining a grounding in subjects that would be pivotal to her work later on, including classes in biology, organic chemistry, and nutrition.

While studying abroad in England, Lauren started to question her choice of major. Working in a lab with cadavers was not the type of setting she wanted.

But more significant was what was happening at home. Lauren returned from her study abroad early when she learned that her mother was ill with terminal lung cancer. Years before, her father had died of heart disease.

“Seeing both of my parents taken early by disease was eye-opening for me. I took a step back and asked myself what I was doing with my life,” she recalls. “It became clear that nutrition and lifestyle changes could have prevented their deaths. That was the impetus to push me into the nutrition field.”

When Lauren returned to her undergraduate studies, it was to pursue a Bachelor of Science in nutritional sciences and dietetics.

Establishing a Research Agenda

While pursuing her master’s degree in nutrition and public health at Columbia University, and then a PhD in food policy and applied nutrition at Tufts University, Lauren received mentorship and encouragement to apply her inquisitive nature to research.

“Many of my experiences in nutrition had been more hands-on, but I thought I’d have the biggest impact in research,” Lauren explains.

Now an assistant researcher at the Nutrition Policy Institute, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Lauren hopes to establish herself as an independently funded investigator who can design, evaluate, and disseminate school-based nutrition interventions to reduce childhood obesity in vulnerable populations.

Funding from both RWJF’s New Connections program and the RWJF Healthy Eating Research program is allowing Lauren to make headway on those goals. As a new scholar, she could not be more grateful for the chance to receive independent funding, which has given her dedicated research time.

Lauren also has found enrichment through the New Connections program in unexpected ways.

“I didn’t realize when I was applying just how critical the New Connections network would be — not just now, but for the rest of my career,” she attests. “That exposure to other researchers working in health equity and disparities, from diverse backgrounds, is invaluable.”

Working Toward Improved Nutrition in Youth

RWJF funding allowed Lauren to design her own research study examining the association between the current school nutrition environment and children’s weight status by income and race/ethnicity.

Only four months after receiving the RWJF grants, Lauren learned that she also had received a competitive career development grant from the National Institutes of Health, which will carry her study through the next five years.

By looking at the country’s school nutrition environment, Lauren has learned the importance of early intervention, especially among underserved racial and ethnic groups.

“It’s much easier to shape lifestyle changes at a young age,” she says. “If a middle school-aged child is obese, the likelihood of them being obese as an adult is very high, especially in racially diverse communities. We have to start with young kids to prevent obesity in the next generation.”

Lauren hopes that one day, her research will inform improved policies and programs.

“That’s the biggest push for doing evidence-based research: having research drive effective policy change,” she explains. “I want my research to contribute to programs that prevent obesity and improve nutrition in the school environment, so that all kids have a chance to thrive and lead healthier lives.”

This year, Lauren will present new findings at four research conferences, including her first international conference at the International Society of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity in Canada.

The Details
  • Title: Assistant Researcher, Nutrition Policy Institute, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • New Connections Year: 2016
  • New Connections Status: Current Grantee
  • Recent Publications:
  • Au, L. E., Whaley, S. E., Gurzo, K., Meza, M., Rosen, N. J., & Ritchie, L. D. (2017). Evaluation of online and in-person nutrition education related to salt knowledge and behaviors among Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children participants. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, in press. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2016.12.013
  • Au, L. E., Rosen, N. J., Fenton, K., Hecht, K., & Ritchie, L. D. (2016). Eating school lunch is associated with higher diet quality among elementary school students. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(11), 1817–1824. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2016.04.010
  • Au, L. E., Whaley, S., Gurzo, K., Meza, M., & Ritchie, L. D. (2016). If you build it they will come: Satisfaction of WIC participants with online and traditional in-person nutrition education. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 48(5), 336–342. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2016.02.011
  • Au, L. E., Whaley, S., Rosen, N. J., Meza, M., & Ritchie, L. D. (2015). Online and in-person nutrition education improves breakfast knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors: A randomized trial of participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(3), 490–500. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2015.10.012