Evaluation of I-TOPP examines outcomes of transdisciplinary doctoral training program

February 23, 2018

URBANA, Ill. - Over the past 30 years, the prevalence of overweight and obesity has doubled in 2- to 5-year-olds and tripled in children aged 6 to 11 years. To address this public health concern, in 2011, the USDA funded the Illinois Transdisciplinary Obesity Prevention Program (I-TOPP), a joint doctoral/Masters of Public Health (MPH) degree program, at the University of Illinois with the goal of training future leaders to address the problem of childhood obesity.

Although transdisciplinary doctoral training programs in academic settings are relatively new, these types of research approaches are increasingly being used to address complex research areas, such as childhood obesity.

"We know the causes of childhood obesity are multifactorial, involving both genetic and environmental causes," says Sharon Donovan, professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at U of I and director of I-TOPP. "Of the environmental factors, family routines, nutrition, food security, physical activity, sedentary behavior, and sleep are all important.

"To tackle such a multifaceted issue, many perspectives need to be brought to the table, necessitating a transdisciplinary approach," she adds.

Because Donovan and her fellow researchers were undertaking a new approach to doctoral training, they wanted to evaluate the education process as well as the outcomes. To understand the barriers and benefits to transdisciplinary doctoral training--versus focusing on a single discipline--the researchers conducted focus groups with the faculty and students at the start of the program and after five years into the program.

A paper focusing on the perspectives of faculty and students in the program, published in Palgrave Communications, describes some of the perceived benefits and barriers to transdisciplinary education. Some of the benefits cited were greater collaboration and networking, more guidance and support from advisors, newly broadened ways of thinking, and expanded opportunities for learning and research.

Some of the barriers cited by students included time concerns; feeling like they had too much to do and not enough time to do it, as well as feeling like they were under greater pressure compared to their traditional counterparts. "While both the faculty and students acknowledged the benefits of I-TOPP, it is important to think about ways to lower the barriers to transdisciplinary training in order to be successful," Donovan adds.

Previous research has shown that the timing of publications from transdisciplinary research can be delayed due to the need for the team to come together and the nature of the complex questions the teams often undertake. Thus, the researchers were interested in determining if that was the case for I-TOPP.

A second paper, recently published in PloS One, shows that the program's success in training doctoral students has included higher-impact research publications by I-TOPP students, more collaborators (co-authors) on those papers, and more disciplines represented when compared to the publications of students in traditional doctoral programs. Publication impact indicators were significantly higher for I-TOPP students, including higher citations in Google Scholar and Scopus.

Publication productivity was somewhat, though not significantly, higher for I-TOPP students, as well.

The program's transdisciplinary approaches span beyond the expertise of instructors and researchers within academia and also involve community stakeholders. These approaches, which are often a component of team science, teach students to master and then integrate broad methods to find solutions to complex public health problems such as childhood obesity.

"Our students work with the community to find real-world solutions when it comes to research," explains Anna-Sigrid Keck, program coordinator and lead author on both papers. "It's really applied research that the students are working on during their doctoral training. Students in the I-TOPP program take the disciplinary foundation, and create new thinking and new hypotheses, and then merge them together. That takes more work but the publication impact is an indication that it might be worth the extra work effort."

The program has 11 doctoral students, who were enrolled in three cohorts in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Seven I-TOPP students have already begun or have accepted prestigious grant-funded post-doctoral positions. Another student recently accepted a faculty position at Boston College, the first faculty position for one of the program's graduates.

Keck says the intent is to continue following the careers of I-TOPP graduates over the next 10 years, continuing to compare them to traditional doctoral students. "Even now there are publication differences, but I think the real impact will be 5-10 years out," Keck says.

Donovan adds, "When we started I-TOPP in 2011, we proposed that the graduates of the program would be ideally positioned to undertake complex public health problems, due to the combined PhD, MPH degree, and the transdisciplinary educational approach. Given the high-quality institutions where we have placed our graduates, including the Baylor College of Medicine, Boston College, Harvard, Northeastern University, Northwestern University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Minnesota, we are beginning to see that promise fulfilled."
-end-
The four co-principal investigators for I-TOPP are U of I professors Sharon Donovan, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition; Barbara Fiese, Department of Human Development and Family Studies; Hillary Klonoff-Cohen, Department of Kinesiology and Community Health; and Rod Johnson, Department of Animal Sciences. Donovan and Johnson are also members of the Division of Nutritional Sciences.

I-TOPP was one of four similar USDA-funded programs also at Pennsylvania State University, South Dakota State University, and California State University.

"Productivity, impact, and collaboration differences between transdisciplinary and traditionally trained doctoral students: A comparison of publication patterns," is published in PloS One. Authors include Anna-Sigrid Keck, Stephanie Sloane, Janet M. Liechty, Barbara H. Fiese, and Sharon M. Donovan.

"Longitudinal perspectives of faculty and students on benefits and barriers to transdisciplinary graduate education: program assessment and institutional recommendations," is published in Palgrave Communications. Co-authors include Anna-Sigrid Keck, Stephanie Sloane, Janet M. Liechty, Megan S. Paceley, Sharon M. Donovan, Kelly K. Bost, Brent A. McBride, and Barbara H. Fiese.

The work was funded by a grant (2011-67001-30101) from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and by three areas of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Office for Vice Chancellor for Research, Colleges of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and College of Applied Heath Sciences) to the Division of Nutritional Sciences.

University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

Related Obesity Articles from Brightsurf:

11 years of data add to the evidence for using testosterone therapy to treat obesity, including as an alternative to obesity surgery
New research covering 11 years of data presented at this year's European and International Congress on Obesity (ECOICO 2020) show that, in obese men suffering from hypogonadism (low testosterone), treatment with testosterone injections lowers their weight and improves a wide range of other metabolic parameters.

Overlap between immunology of COVID-19 and obesity could explain the increased risk of death in people living with obesity, and also older patients
Data presented in a special COVID-19 session at the European and International Congress on Obesity (ECOICO 2020) suggests that there are overlaps between the immunological disturbances found in both COVID-19 disease and patients with obesity, which could explain the increased disease severity and mortality risk faced by obese patients, and also elderly patients, who are infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 disease.

New obesity guideline: Address root causes as foundation of obesity management
besity management should focus on outcomes that patients consider to be important, not weight loss alone, and include a holistic approach that addresses the root causes of obesity, according to a new clinical practice guideline published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) http://www.cmaj.ca/lookup/doi/10.1503/cmaj.191707.

Changing the debate around obesity
The UK's National Health Service (NHS) needs to do more to address the ingrained stigma and discrimination faced by people with obesity, says a leading health psychologist.

Study links longer exposure to obesity and earlier development of obesity to increased risk of type 2 diabetes
Cumulative exposure to obesity could be at least as important as actually being obese in terms of risk of developing type 2 diabetes (T2D), concludes new research published in Diabetologia (the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes [EASD]).

How much do obesity and addictions overlap?
A large analysis of personality studies has found that people with obesity behave somewhat like people with addictions to alcohol or drugs.

Should obesity be recognized as a disease?
With obesity now affecting almost a third (29%) of the population in England, and expected to rise to 35% by 2030, should we now recognize it as a disease?

Is obesity associated with risk of pediatric MS?
A single-center study of 453 children in Germany with multiple sclerosis (MS) investigated the association of obesity with pediatric MS risk and with the response of first-line therapy in children with MS.

Women with obesity prior to conception are more likely to have children with obesity
A systematic review and meta-analysis identified significantly increased odds of child obesity when mothers have obesity before conception, according to a study published June 11, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS Medicine by Nicola Heslehurst of Newcastle University in the UK, and colleagues.

Obesity medicine association announces major updates to its adult obesity algorithm
The Obesity Medicine Association (OMA) announced the immediate availability of the 2019 OMA Adult Obesity Algorithm, with new information for clinicians including the relationship between Obesity and Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes Mellitus, Dyslipidemia, and Cancer; information on investigational Anti-Obesity Pharmacotherapy; treatments for Lipodystrophy; and Pharmacokinetics and Obesity.

Read More: Obesity News and Obesity Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.