Scholar Story: Lauren Au, PhD, RN

“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.