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$4.5 million grant creates transdisciplinary program to train scholars in child obesity prevention

URBANA A five-year $4.5 million USDA grant to University of Illinois researchers will establish the Illinois Transdisciplinary Obesity Prevention Program (I-TOPP), an innovative research-based program that will combine a Ph.D. with a master's in public health (MPH) degree focused on child obesity prevention.

"This exciting new program allows us to develop novel hypotheses and approaches as researchers come together from their individual areas of expertise to solve the problem of child obesity," said Sharon Donovan, the Melissa M. Noel Professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition and I-TOPP director.

Students in the new program will be taught to think broadly about child obesity because research has shown that no single approach adequately addresses the problem, said Donovan.

"None of us as individuals has the expertise to cover the entire landscape," she noted.

I-TOPP scholars who receive this new degree will benefit from a blend of transdisciplinary and translational research, Donovan said.

"By combining training in research and public health interventions, these students will be uniquely qualified to develop, implement and evaluate programs targeting childhood obesity prevention," she added.

I-TOPP co-director and head of the university's MPH program David Buchner said the result will be a uniquely trained group of people who use both research and public health practice skills to address one of our country's most urgent public health problems. The MPH program is housed in the College of Applied Health Sciences.

The new degree will integrate innovative research in nutrition, child development and family studies, physical activity, public health science and practice, economics, practices in child care centers, and the effects of media. Students will develop and test transdisciplinary interventions to prevent childhood obesity, Donovan said.

I-TOPP will build on the transdisciplinary projects currently under way in the university's Synergistic Theory and Research on Obesity and Nutrition Group, also called the STRONG Kids program, a cells-to-society approach that examines how genes, family, community, child care provider, culture, and media contribute to the development of childhood obesity. The project team involves investigators from five colleges and seven departments.

According to I-TOPP co-director Barbara Fiese, the program has been set up in a very deliberate way so that students will have multiple advisers. Faculty will help students create new types of research programs that just wouldn't exist otherwise.

"We can't yet envision the research programs of the next generation of scientists. They'll learn to ask the kinds of questions and think in ways that we haven't been trained to do. This program really puts us on the cutting edge of what graduate education should look like," said Fiese, the director of the U of I's Family Resiliency Center and holder of the Pampered Chef Ltd. Endowed Chair in Family Resiliency.

Fiese said that her generation of scientists has had to bootstrap themselves to become good transdisciplinary collaborators. Because I-TOPP will have a strong evaluation component, the scientists will now learn whether this kind of collaboration is something that students can be taught to do.

"At the end of the students' graduate program, we will be assessing these students, comparing them to students who have received just the MPH and Ph.D. degrees to see how successful we've been in helping our I-TOPP scholars to achieve this broader, more transdisciplinary view," Donovan said.

The scientists also want to learn how this problem-focused scholarship has affected the students' critical thinking, investigation, and writing skills, and where these students will go in terms of their profession and career.

"We anticipate that they're going to have a very different career trajectory than students who go through traditional MPH or Ph.D. programs," Fiese said.

Donovan believes that I-TOPP students will be uniquely positioned to take leadership roles in academic, medical, non-profit, and governmental institutions.

The program will be administered in the U of I's Division of Nutritional Sciences (DNS), a pioneer in modeling transdisciplinary education at the university.

Director of DNS and I-TOPP co-director Rodney Johnson is excited to be a part of this new program. "For more than 40 years, DNS has facilitated interdisciplinary graduate nutrition-related education and research. This new joint degree program, which aspires to address one of society's great challenges, is consistent with DNS goals. It is what we are about," he said.

The program will have an ongoing seminar series, will develop two new courses, will promote broad cross-disciplinary interactions between U of I faculty and international leaders through its visiting faculty and lecture series, and will host an annual conference that Donovan believes will attract the participation of influential scholars.

And I-TOPP students will receive a generous stipend, tuition assistance, research and travel funds, Donovan said.

The following faculty are I-TOPP co-investigators: Kelly Bost, associate professor of human and community development; Diana Grigsby-Toussaint, assistant professor of kinesiology and community health; Craig Gundersen, associate professor of agricultural and consumer economics and head of the National Soybean Research Laboratory; Kristen Harrison, associate professor of communication; Charles Hillman, associate professor of kinesiology and community health; Juhee Kim, assistant professor of kinesiology and community health; Soo-Yeun Lee, associate professor of food science and human nutrition; Janet Liechty, associate professor of social work; Brent McBride, professor of human and community development and director of the university's Child Development Laboratory; Margarita Teran-Garcia, MD, and assistant professor of food science and human nutrition; and Angela Wiley, associate professor of human and community development.

The grant was awarded through the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.


Contact: Phyllis Picklesimer
University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

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