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Public Health Research Day Taps Campus Ingenuity at UC San Diego


By Bonnie Ward   |   May 04, 2016

Coming up with fixes for the public health problems of today is a tall order by anyone’s standards.

But the students, faculty and staff gathered at the second annual UC San Diego Public Health Research Day were obviously undaunted. One hundred research projects – taking on issues ranging from obesity to drug abuse – were on display, showcasing an impressive blend of ingenuity and inspiration.

Public Health Research Day brings together researchers from across UC San Diego to take on issues ranging from obesity to drug abuse

“This is a wonderful way to bring together students and faculty working in diverse areas to create a healthier world,” said Bess Marcus, PhD, chair of the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health and acting Director of the UC San Diego Institute for Public Health, which launched the event in 2015 to recognize and encourage cross-campus collaborations.

“We thought about how there are great minds all over this campus,” said Marcus, also senior associate dean for Public Health at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “If we can get more folks from different areas to focus on what we need in public health, then we’re going to do better together than we do on our own.”

The event, held April 6 in the Medical Education Telemedicine Building, seemed to reflect the collaborative goal. Individuals from 20 different departments, including mathematics, aerospace engineering, pediatrics, pharmacy, engineering as well as public health, displayed project posters outlining out-of-the-box ideas for addressing myriad health issues. 

Consider these innovative examples: A study of fast-food habits using GPS technology from a Calit2 researcher; the development of a prototype shoe insert to wirelessly track heart patient weight gain from a bioengineering student; and a study exploring the effects of Australia’s more graphic cigarette warning labels on U.S. smokers’ attitudes toward smoking, courtesy of a public health graduate student.

Sara McMenamin, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health and Public Health Research Day Chair, said the Research Day demonstrates the power of connecting different, seemingly unrelated disciplines to create unique solutions. “For instance, bioengineering researchers developing a removable stomach tattoo that can perform wireless fetal monitoring in pregnant women. As engineers they can build a really cool device, but they need a bridge to a researcher or clinician in the School of Medicine who is exploring fetal outcomes. It’s this type of synergy across disciplines that we hope to strengthen through events like this.”

The event kicked off with remarks from Marcus, who introduced guest speakers Linda Hill, MD, a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health, and Nick Macchione, director of San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency. “You’ve picked the noblest profession,’’ said Macchione to the public health majors in the audience. “This is where we do the most good for the public. But much still needs to be done to improve the nation’s health.”

Recognition of this need was clearly evident among the Research Day presenters. “My focus is on older adults,” said Michelle Takemoto, a graduate student in public health. “I think they’re such an important component of the population that sometimes gets left behind.”

Takemoto’s project sought to improve senior health through peer-led physical activity. Her four-month study involved 41 older adults from the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center in downtown San Diego. Several of the seniors were trained as peer coaches and led group walks and health discussion meetings twice a week. The researchers found that the peer-to-peer connection was “worth its weight in gold,” said Takemoto.

“Me, coming in as a 31-year-old, telling a senior, ‘you need to be more physically active,’ isn’t the same as someone their own age, who says, ‘these are the benefits I’ve experienced and you can have them too.’”

One group, in fact, was led by a senior citizen who often used a motorized scooter, but gradually began to walk more. “He could really connect with people in the program who might not be at a high level of activity. That’s more powerful than anything we can say about physical activity benefits.”

At a nearby poster presentation, John Nguyen, a pharmacy graduate student, talked about the importance of educating young people about the dangers of prescription drug abuse. Nguyen is chairman of the Generation Rx team, a student group from the UC San Diego Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, which gives educational presentations at San Diego middle and high schools. The program has reached more than 3,500 students since launching four years ago. “When our presentation is done, the kids come away with a much better understanding of the many side effects of pain killers, stimulants and other commonly abused drugs,” said Nguyen. “I feel really good about participating.” 

Nathan Painter, PharmD, associate clinical professor and the group’s faculty advisor, said the program provides a much needed public service. “Prescription drug abuse is a growing problem,” he said, noting that annual U.S. deaths from prescription drug overdose now outnumber deaths from car accidents.

“Outreach programs, like ours, have shown some success at keeping young people from starting to abuse drugs. If we can do that, then we can save these kids from the risk of addiction and death. It’s one important way we can help to address this problem,” said Painter.