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Building the Gap Between Research and Policy to Support Healthy Behaviors

Published on August 31, 2020

Jillian Barnas, Ph.D. became involved in research as an undergraduate and discovered she enjoyed asking critical questions and being able to solve them with science. She will bring her inquisitive nature to her role as a fellow this fall to the inaugural class of Missouri Science and Technology Policy (MOST) Fellows.

Her doctoral training will provide the MOST Fellowship program with a wide knowledge base of not only the molecular mechanism of exercise but the application of that knowledge to the patient and population level. Her many years of teaching has given her the ability to break down these concepts in a way for people to understand, she said. Her fellowship focus will be children, families and seniors. I hope to contribute to this focus by providing lawmakers with the most up-to-date, non-partisan information to help them make the best decisions in regard to children, families, and senior health,” she said. 

“I wanted to work on bridging the gap between research and the public because I felt there was a disconnect between the work that scientists do and how that information is presented to the people,” she said. In 2015, she learned about the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the non-traditional paths of doctoral degrees and how to get involved in policy. She then learned about the Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering Workshop (CASE) that is for upper-class undergraduate and graduate students in science, mathematics, and engineering disciplines to learn about science policy and advocacy. This sparked her interest in having a potential career in scientific policy making and advocacy.

She chose exercise science because she is passionate about living a healthy and active lifestyle. During her time at Illinois State University (ISU) she earned an undergraduate and master’s degree in exercise science and exercise physiology. She became involved in a summer program, the Polar Tech Camp, which was a three day training of teaching physical education teachers about the importance of data management to maintain the legitimacy of their physical education programs.

“One of the keynote speakers played this clip asking children what they would do if they had five extra years to live because children today will not outlive their parents due to the obesity and physical inactivity epidemic that plagues westernized societies. It was from that clip I wanted to further explore physical activity interventions in kids and to help instill healthy behaviors in children at a young age,” Dr. Barnas said.

This became her main focus when she searched for doctoral programs that led to her attending the University of Missouri and working with Dr. Steve Ball and Dr. Jill Kanaley in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology. She eventually earned a doctorate in exercise physiology. 

Her research at the Mizzou has been centered around how exercise relates to maternal and childhood health. “Maternal health, from in utero to adolescence, is a critical time to promote lifelong health benefits - my research has allowed me to intervene at these crucial periods of development,” she said. Her dissertation focused on using recess interventions to improve physical activity and behavioral management during the school day in elementary-aged children.

She said, as she started her doctoral studies she became interested in maternal health and its implications on fetal health and outcomes. While she understood that women should refrain from negative behaviors, such as tobacco and alcohol, during pregnancy, “the influence of maternal obesity, exercise, and metabolism per se on her child’s later health and development has only just begun to be realized.”

Another interest is the decline in physical activity and the increased prevalence of obesity in women during childbearing years. “It has been shown that children of obese, sedentary mothers are already metabolically compromised compared to children of healthy, physically active mothers. This creates a cyclic, trans generational pattern of obesity. Knowing how maternal obesity directly impacts child development and how maternal exercise may be used to ameliorate any detrimental effects will be critical in combating the physical inactivity and obesity epidemic seen in our country,” she said. 

Through her research, she found that childhood obesity has tripled since the 1970s. Currently, approximately 20 percent of children aged two to 19 are considered obese, and this significantly increases their risk for developing obesity as an adult.

Dr. Barnas said children are less active and more sedentary than ever before. Due to the heightened importance of academic achievements, many schools have reduced opportunities for children to engage in physical activity (PA) to lessen negative behaviors.

During her research she used the activity zoned playground that divided the playground into space into distinct activity zones that are meant to encourage physically active behavior. They divided the playground into six activity zones for two weeks and measured physical activity using activity trackers fastned to their waists at two elementary schools. They discovered the sedentary children did increase their physical activity engagement with the intervention when compared to baseline measurements, she said.  Overall the conclusion of her dissertation work was that the activity zone playground intervention during recess can improve physical activity participation and can lead to improvements in school day behavior, especially in younger students.

As a scientist she loves the creative freedom to research ideas and topics that interest her. She said that it’s exciting to have ideas come to fruition or come across a finding that she wasn’t expecting. Another exciting part about research is “providing evidence and data that has real-world applicability outside the lab and can truly help people.”

Her dissertation research has been a significant moment for her when she went from the idea stage to the real-life applicability and benefit for children engaging in physical activity during recess which led to improvements in social behavior. As a doctoral student she received the Londeree/Thomas Award for Outstanding Student in Exercise Physiology which was determined by her peers and not faculty. “It was touching to receive this award from my colleagues who I am in the trenches with,” she said. 

In her research she said it is important to reach out to the appropriate experts. For example, she said working with pregnant women and children involved networking with the appropriate contacts to create a collaborative environment where information can be exchanged freely for the benefit of the project and those involved. “We worked in collaboration with these experts and used their expertise to employ the most robust and rigorous methodological procedures in order to address our hypothesis without putting our subjects through additional and unnecessary stress. I hope to bring the same charisma and energy in fostering relationships with the lawmakers.” 

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