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International Health

Johns Hopkins Global Center for Childhood Obesity
Where Systems Science Meets Public Health

This September, IH Associate Professor Youfa Wang became the founding director of the new Johns Hopkins Global Center for Childhood Obesity. Funded through a $16 NIH Center grant and $4 million institutional co-funding, this new center of excellence will serve as a resource to researchers worldwide in their efforts to prevent childhood obesity and non-communicable chronic disease. As its motto—Where Systems Science Meets Public Health—suggests, the Center will promote transdisciplinary, systems science-oriented,1 research and training.

Obesity Worldwide in BoysAccording to the World Health Organization, worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980 and nearly 43 million children under age 5 were overweight in 2010. The Center’s founding marks a new effort by NIH to address the obesity epidemic from a global perspective. In addition to studying the drivers of the childhood obesity epidemic and environmental and policy interventions, the Center will also provide rapid-response grants to investigators in the field across the globe to obtain time-sensitive data on environmental and policy changes relevant to childhood obesity. As Dr. Layla Esposito, program director from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, explains:

The Center’s focus on systems science will help train a new generation of researchers and public health professionals to help fight the growing global epidemic of childhood obesity and non-communicable chronic diseases. We are going to bring together a large number of investigators from many different disciplines and from different countries to address the complexity of childhood obesity.

While the Center is based at the Bloomberg School, it is one of the few projects to include researchers from across the entire University. In addition to scientists at the NIH and 15 domestic and international organizations, researchers are based at five Johns Hopkins schools:

Bloomberg School of Public Health
Whiting School of Engineering
School of Medicine
School of Nursing
Krieger School of Arts and Sciences

In October, a rare exhibit of University-wide collaboration occurred when the vice provost, several Department Chairs, and deans or vice deans from each of the five Schools of the University attended the Center’s kick-off meeting. “The founding of the Center is a major achievement and another example of the Department’s expanding leadership role in non-communicable disease research in our University and in the field. I’m particularly impressed by the Center’s ability to bring together such a diverse group of experts from across the University,” commented Department Chair Robert Black.

Overall Goals
The new Center will provide a research and training infrastructure for building the capacity for integrating systems science into obesity and chronic disease research. Study results are expected to inform policy design and future empirical research and interventions.

The Center has three broad mandates:NIH site visit
1. Research: To employ cutting-edge study designs and methodologies to better understand the complex determinants of childhood obesity and the impact of behavioral, environmental and policy interventions.
2. Training: To train a new and outstanding cohort of investigators at different career stages in emerging system-science theories and methods. The Center will offer various short- and long-term training programs and scholarships to fund pre-doctoral studies and post-doctoral fellows and visiting scholars.
3. Outreach: To share findings, accomplishments and resources to the widest possible international audience, through journal publications and reports, public presentations, policy briefs, courses, collaboration with governments and policy bodies, and online resources and tools.

Center Cores
To lead the Center in its overall mission the Center is divided into four core groups.

The Administrative Core is responsible for the management and oversight of all Center activities. The core works closely with international and US partners, along with NIH partners to monitor progress, and implement strategic planning.
Director: Youfa Wang, associate professor, International Health
Co-director: Thomas Glass, professor, Epidemiology
Chair of Scientific Committee: Shiriki Kumanyika, professor,
Univ. of Pennsylvania
Dr. Layla Esposito, NIH Scientist

Trends in adiposity in ChinaThe Research Resource Core will provide a central Web-based GIS-enhanced database platform and standardized protocols for geospatial data acquisition, management, sharing, pooling and analysis across all projects. It will facilitate and support a comprehensive set of Center-wide outreach activities to disseminate Center information, and it will support training and pilot projects.
Director: Youfa Wang, associate professor, International Health
Co-director: Joshua Epstein, professor, School of Medicine
Co-director: Eileen McGurty, program director, Environmental Sciences and Policy, Krieger School of Arts & Sciences

The Education and Training Core will design, implement and monitor an array of educational and training programs to increase the number of public health researchers with capacities in systems science theories and methods who can advance our understanding of the causes of, and solutions to, the epidemic of childhood obesity.
Director, Takeru Igusa, professor, Whiting School of Engineering
Co-director: Thomas Glass, professor, Epidemiology

The Rapid Response Pilot Project Core will provide a mechanism for supporting innovative small and pilot projects that use a systems-oriented approach to evaluate the impacts of policy and environmental changes on childhood obesity.
Director, Lawrence J. Cheskin, associate professor, Health, Behavior & Society
Co-director, Shiriki Kumanyika, professor, University of Pennsylvania

Four Key Research Projects
In addition to the four core groups, the Center leads four large research projects that are central to its mission.
1. Dynamics of Childhood Obesity in Pennsylvania from Community to Epigenetics. This study will extend existing data to understand the dynamics of childhood obesity in a large population of children living in 500 communities that vary on rates of childhood obesity and on key features of the built and social environment.

PI: Thomas Glass, professor, Epidemiology
Co-PI: Brian S. Schwartz, professor, Environmental Health Sciences

2. Multilevel Obesity Prevention Study (MOPS).MOPS is an intervention trial which will operate at multiple levels of the Baltimore City food system. The study aims to increase affordability, availability and consumption of healthy foods within low-income, predominately African-American neighborhoods. PI: Joel Gittelsohn, professor, International Health

3. Multilevel Systems-oriented Childhood Obesity Study in China. This project’s goal is to study the interplay, impact, and feedback loops of the built, social, economic, environmental and policy factors and their changes on individual children and their families’ decisions, eating, physical activity, and adiposity outcomes.
PI: Youfa Wang, associate professor, International Health
Co-PI: Dr. Huijun Wang, Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

4. US National Study–Causes and Interventions for Childhood Obesity: Innovative Systems Analysis. This project will examine the influences and interactions between individual, family and environmental factors on childhood obesity. It will test a central hypothesis—that the determinants of individuals' energy balance–related behaviors and bodyweight outcomes involve complex, dynamic processes including various feedback loops across multilevel factors.
PI: Youfa Wang, associate professor, International Health

Upcoming Opportunities for Students and Faculty
The Center will provide ongoing research and training opportunities including scholarships, small grants and research collaboration for researchers and trainees from Hopkins and other institutions. (Read more about one PhD candidate working on projects based at the Center.)

Examples include:

  • New trainee recruitment in the spring of 2012. Applications will be open to students from all qualifying institutions. The application guidelines will be posted on the website shortly.
  • Pilot grants of up to $20-30,000. Call for proposals anticipated in January 2012 to study “natural experiments” of environmental/policy changes, or to perform other research with a systems science focus that has relevance to prevention of childhood obesity.

Dr. Wang anticipates that opportunities for students and colleagues will expand as the Center matures. “Meanwhile, we hope to secure more funding, including new research grants and donations to help achieve our mission of significantly curtailing the global obesity epidemic.” Look for regularly updated opportunities for students, faculty and other researchers on the Center's website   

--Brandon Howard, December 2011