ETSU College of Public Health receives NIH grant

JOHNSON CITY - East Tennessee State University's College of Public Health has received notice that the National Institutes of Health will fund an innovative research project aimed at curbing obesity among young people.

The highly interdisciplinary grant will use Public Health students at the university as facilitators in a peer-based health education program for area high school students. The NIH grant falls under the R-01 classification and is funded at $978,000 for three years. The R-01 category is a highly competitive form of investigator-initiated research grants.

The ETSU students will facilitate group sessions that, over the course of several weeks, will promote supportive peer relationships and positive attitudes in regard to healthy eating habits and physical activity.

The research project is the culmination of the life's work of the late Dr. Tiejian Wu, a widely admired associate professor in the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology and the Department of Family Medicine in the James H. Quillen College of Medicine. Wu, who was known by many colleagues simply as "TJ," designed the research project and guided it through the grant submission process. He passed away earlier this year after a long battle with cancer.

Dr. Deborah Slawson, an assistant professor of Community Health, has assumed the role of lead investigator.

"This award honors TJ's efforts," Slawson said. "We miss him, and it is exciting to be part of the team that will push this forward so we can help realize his vision."

Slawson said employing college students as the lead ambassadors should increase the effectiveness of the message in high schools.

"Our students will emphasize the importance of eating healthy and living a healthy lifestyle," Slawson said.

The project will draw together ETSU faculty members from across the campus, including co-investigator Dr. Karen Schetzina, a pediatrician from the Quillen College of Medicine. Others engaged in the research include Dr. Mary Ann Littleton and Dr. Michael Stoots, faculty from Community Health; Dr. Diana Mozen, an associate professor of physical education; Dr. Will Dalton, assistant professor of psychology; and Bruce Behringer, associate vice president and executive director for ETSU's Office of Rural and Community Health and Community Partnerships.

Dr. Liang Wang, a former doctoral student in Public Health who has since graduated, and Dr. Michael Floyd, a licensed psychologist from the Quillen College of Medicine, were also instrumental in developing the proposal.

Dr. Randy Wykoff, dean of Public Health, noted that obesity is not only a national health threat, but also a particular concern in Tennessee. The Volunteer State is ranked 48 th among U.S. states for its percentage of residents considered obese.

"There are some data that suggest that childhood obesity in Northeast Tennessee is even worse than the state average," Wykoff said. "Dealing with this problem is a major emphasis for our college, and I am proud that this grant will allow us to both address this challenge and, at the same time, honor TJ's legacy."

Wykoff said Wu's research serves as a lasting reminder of his positive influence at ETSU.

"Even though TJ is no longer with us, we're excited that his work could make a difference for years to come," Wykoff said. "And because this is such a collaborative project - one that includes partnerships between ETSU and area high schools, as well as teamwork among faculty from throughout our university - it does reflect his spirit. TJ was the kind of person who naturally brought people together."