Category: School of Nursing
March 23, 2023 Written by Amy Cherry | Photos by Ashley Barnas
Achieving Optimal Health Across the Lifespan
Posters line the halls of the College of Health Sciences Atrium in the STAR Tower and the Health Sciences Complex for as far as the eye can see. What attendees see as they roam the halls on Research Day are words on a poster board, but graduate students, doctoral candidates and postdoctoral fellows spring to life when asked about their research.
“Hypertension is an issue not just for older adults but it’s also a problem for younger adults; health inequities persist for hypertension, and healthcare utilization is very important for young adults,” Asli McCullers could be heard telling a group who stopped by her poster.
McCullers, who’s getting her master’s of public health in epidemiology, is researching the pathway between healthcare utilization and hypertensive outcomes among young adult African American Medicaid beneficiaries in Delaware.
“It’s very humbling that people are excited and want to know more about my work,” “McCullers said.
Students and faculty involved in Research Day have dedicated their lives to advancing science, including Health Behavior Science and Promotion doctoral candidate Paige Laxton, whose groundbreaking research focuses on sedentary behavior in people with intellectual disabilities living in residential group homes.
“It’s really great because not only do I get to share my research and get feedback, but also it’s exciting to see what other people in the College are doing who could become future collaborators,” Laxton said.
Students also made compelling 60-second elevator-style pitches on the Audion stage, urging the more than 300 attendees of Research Day to visit their poster to learn more about their work.
McCullers had good practice ahead of her podium pitch. She recently presented her research at the American Heart Association EPI|Lifestyle Conference in Boston.
“Being able to present my research to my peers at CHS Research Day is even more rewarding because you interact with them every day, and these are the people the work is rooted in; this is about young adults in Delaware, and to share this work with fellow Delawareans is something that I love,” she said.
The research on display represented all facets of the College of Health Sciences, ranging from a tick pathogen testing program in the Medical and Molecular Sciences Department to screening for major depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation in adults with lower-limb loss from the Physical Therapy Department.
The College of Health Sciences has seen impressive growth in its research expenditures over the last decade now totaling $22 million. Bill Farquhar, dean of the College of Health Sciences, called Research Day an excellent opportunity to celebrate the College’s research and scholarship.
“Research Day refreshes our enthusiasm for the scientific enterprise and elevates the College,” Farquhar said. “The College’s research operation has grown significantly over the years with each department advancing knowledge and innovation in a variety of areas, ranging from public health initiatives to cardiovascular health. Research done here on STAR Campus and within CHS continues to have a major impact on the health and wellbeing of our communities.”
Eric Wommack, senior associate vice president of research at UD, pointed to the incredibly important role graduate students play in advancements that change lives.
“The things you’re discovering today in a lab will transform lives and create positive clinical outcomes in the coming decades,” Wommack said.
Farquhar also announced Wednesday that Behavioral Health and Nutrition Professor Freda Patterson will serve as the new associate dean of research for CHS.
“I am thrilled to have this opportunity to continue to advance the research mission of our college; the quality and impact of the research being conducted by our faculty and students is truly remarkable,” Patterson said. “This is one of the reasons why Research Day is one of my favorite days of the year--when you collectively see and hear the amazing work that everyone is doing, it definitely makes me feel that I am part of something bigger that is making people’s lives better.”
The 2023 CHS Research Day featured two keynote speakers Brian Southwell, lead scientist for Public Understanding of Science at RTI International in North Carolina, and Kirk Erickson, director of translational neuroscience at AdventHealth Research Institute in Florida.
Southwell, who’s also an instructor of strategic communication at UD, specializes in communication, human behavior, and misinformation and how it spreads.
“A long history of cognitive psychology research suggests that, as human beings, we have a tendency to take information at face value and to accept it, initially, before only later judging it to be false,” he said.
By then, the information could have already been shared with thousands of our closest friends – and their friends – on social media, creating the challenge we currently face, as he describes it, as the human tendency to accept information, at least initially, and the affordances of the moment.
“That human tendency to share information with one another doesn’t always fully depend on carefully thinking about the facts that we’re sharing,” he said. “Sometimes misinformation spreads online and elsewhere because we’re eager to connect with one another.”
To forge a path forward and combat misinformation, Southwell advised steering clear of the popular “myth-busting” approach, especially for older audiences in the health context.
“Dealing with misinformation is actually more about building and reinforcing trust and putting less blame on those who don’t trust us,” he said.
He urged healthcare providers and clinicians to spend more time in this space.
“Instead of being aghast at and dismissing information patients might bring to us, try understanding what’s attractive about that information to them,” he said. “Without accepting what they say is true, try to provide better and more credible information that meets their needs.”
Despite what headlines suggest, Southwell said there hasn’t been a complete eradication of trust in institutions, so he urged providers to approach the problem with compassion, recognition and empathy.
“In this country, one’s own personal healthcare provider is still often seen as a credible source,” he said. “We ought to build on that. Next time you encounter misinformation, remember the person trusted you enough to talk about that piece of misinformation so realize there’s some basis to move forward because we have a relationship to build on.”
Kirk Erickson’s afternoon keynote focused on the effects of exercise on brain health. Erickson, director of translational neuroscience at AdventHealth Research Institute in Florida and a former professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, served on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee and has dedicated years to researching the effects of aging and exercise and their impact on cognitive function.
“Exercise is having a broad general effect on cognition and the brain,” Erickson said.
Those effects, he said, are most evident in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex sections of the brain. He pointed to research that shows a 2% increase in the size of the hippocampus, which is critical for memory formation, over the course of a year in those who exercised.
“Pharmaceutical trials have been trying to do this same thing for many years and have failed to do so,” Erickson said. “Physical activity was very effective at enhancing hippocampus size, showing not only that the hippocampus remains plastic and modifiable but that only 12 months of exercise is capable of taking advantage of this portion of the brain’s natural properties.”
But the effect doesn’t happen equally across all people and the lifespan. His studies found that age is a modifying factor for the effects of exercise on the brain. In addition, there are other sources of heterogeneity across studies including sleep patterns, intellectual engagement, and socioeconomic conditions.
“We found that those aged 55 to 68 saw a significant effect of exercise on memory function while in those aged 69 to 75, the effect was no longer significant,” Erickson said. “That brings us back to the question—is there an age when it’s too late for exercise to improve cognitive function? We don’t know enough about what’s happening in that age range and why this particular effect occurs. Understanding the heterogeneity of response and individual differences remains a major gap in this research.”
Erickson’s research also seeks answers to questions of the mechanisms by which exercise influences brain health, how long the effects of exercise are retained, and what types and doses of exercise are most effective.
“Exercise may have long-term health consequences for many different diseases affecting the brain not just neurologic or psychiatric conditions,” he said. “One of my studies targets women with breast cancer, and we’re examining whether engaging people in exercise improves cognitive function.”
The results of that study should be published in the next few months.
CHS Research Day culminated with awards for the most outstanding research presentations by undergraduates, graduates, doctoral candidates, and postdocs.
“Research Day provides an outlet for students to showcase scholarly excellence, build their portfolios, learn from others, and engage in enlightening conversations that hopefully spark new collaborations with colleagues,” Farquhar said.