ALR Grantee Spotlight: Q & A with a Dissertation Grantee

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August 1, 2012
By Dustin Duncan
ALR Grantee Spotlight: Q & A with a Dissertation Grantee

A question & answer session with former ALR dissertation grantee Dustin T. Duncan, Sc.D., Alonzo Smythe Yerby Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health.

What was your dissertation award and how has it helped you with your career?

My dissertation was titled “A Spatial Analysis of Obesogenic Neighborhood Environmental Influences Among Children and Adolescents”. It examined how various neighborhood environmental features (e.g. crime, access to walking destinations and community design) influence obesity risk among children and adolescents.

My dissertation was possible because of an RWJF Active Living Research Dissertation Grant. It enabled me to develop the skills to conduct complex spatial analysis and provided the support to fund a GIS Analyst to assist in creating various GIS variables. The grant helped me to concentrate on my dissertation, for which I was awarded the Howard T. Fisher Prize for Excellence in Geographic Information Science from the Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard University.

In May 2011, I completed my doctorate in Social Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and in September 2011 began the Alonzo Smythe Yerby Postdoctoral Fellowship at HSPH.

The ALR dissertation grant and my postdoctoral fellowship have solidified my interest in a research career in academic public health. After completing the postdoctoral fellowship, my goal is to secure a tenure-track faculty position at a school of public health or medicine. My long-term goal is to become an independent investigator and leader in the field of neighborhood determinants of population health (especially obesity prevention) among children, adolescents and their families—with a special emphasis on minority health and health disparities.

What are your most policy and practice relevant findings?

  • Adolescents living in neighborhoods with crime (including high violent crime) were sometimes more likely to have a higher BMI.
  • Single features of the built environment seem not to influence the likelihood of an adolescent being obese. Other studies suggest that multiple built environment features are important for adolescent obesity. Tools, such as Walk Score®, that take into account multiple features of the built environment should be used when measuring the likelihood of an adolescent being obese.
  • Walk Score® is a valid measure of estimating certain aspects of neighborhood walkability (such as density of retail destinations, density of recreational open space, intersection density, residential density and density of subway stops). However, Walk Score® works best at larger spatial scales.
  • Features of the built environment (e.g. average speed limit) are barriers to physical activity among children and reduce the uptake of physical activity of those participating in an intervention.

 

This dissertation and other research indicate that the neighborhood environment can be linked to child/adolescent obesity risk. These results, along with others, can be immediately applied to policy planning. By examining the influence of specific modifiable neighborhood characteristics on childhood/adolescent obesity risk, this type of research can help identify which characteristics need to be modified, such as how to make neighborhoods more walkable. We can also make neighborhoods safer by preventing crime through environmental design strategies. These results also inform current and future interventions by raising awareness of the need to conduct behavioral interventions in tandem with environmental alteration.

How are you currently continuing to work in preventing the childhood obesity epidemic?

My ALR dissertation grant and research more broadly has solidified my interest in understanding and ultimately combating the childhood obesity epidemic. I am committed to continuing childhood obesity prevention research. As a doctoral student, I was a graduate research fellow at the Harvard Prevention Research Center (HPRC) on Nutrition and Physical Activity at Harvard School of Public Health, which is led by Steven L. Gortmaker, PhD. I continue to work with HPRC researchers, including upcoming work on a small RWJF grant that I was recently awarded. We will be using GIS features (e.g. features of the built environment), which were created as part of the ALR grant, in part to examine neighborhood influences of multiple obesogenic behaviors among youth not examined in the ALR grant (e.g. television use). I have also begun childhood obesity prevention research collaborations with the Obesity Prevention Program in Harvard Medical School’s Department of Population Medicine.

Learn more about Dr. Duncan here.

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