This is the first in a series of stories delving into the various research that College of Science faculty members at the University of Findlay are working on. In an effort to show readers, in part, what UF offers its students in the areas of science, these stories will reveal the diverse methods, processes and topics that faculty shares with students.
Some might think that the way to combat childhood obesity is simple and straightforward: teach children to eat sensibly and get plenty of exercise and encourage them to make small changes with it every day. But is it really that simple?
While a good diet, abundant exercise and education about lifestyle are always good ideas, what if there are other important factors that the general community might not be aware of? And, if there are other factors, how do we find out what they are and start educating families about them?
Enter Kim Lichtveld, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental safety and occupational health management at the University of Findlay. Lichtveld is employing the knowledge she both used and gained from her former position with the Environmental Protection Agency along with a previously published paper to research questions regarding obesity in children and how to begin to prevent it, and her hard work has led to some interesting and new schools of thought.
While still with the EPA, Lichtveld was working on a couple of papers—one of them ending up nominated as a top 100 article of that journal for the year—and summarizing all of the determining factors that lead to childhood obesity. Some of these factors, Lichtveld is discovering through her research, are pieces to the puzzle that most would not think of, yet need to be focused on in order to try and slow down the epidemic. “I’m trying to find the combinations that are triggers, so public health people can then address them through various interventions,” she said. “All the data is out there already, but we need to make sense out of it, to really make people understand that it’s not just one factor or cause.” And, while it’s undoubtedly challenging being responsible for all of that “sense-making,” Lichtveld is clearly committed to shining a light on the under-explored possibilities.
Part of Lichtveld’s focus is concentrated on chemical factors that might trigger an underlying issue. She studied the effects of chemicals that come off of furniture, from flame retardants, air pollution and cigarette smoke. “This area is fairly new and growing,” Lichtveld explained. “There’s not a whole lot of research. But we want to look at the mechanisms within the body. In other words, how do these things alter genetics? Maybe, for instance, exposure to a certain chemical turns on a fat gene that had been there all along. Researchers need to think more broadly and make people more uncomfortable.”
Being uncomfortable, Lichtveld said, while obviously not pleasant, leads to action. She explained that people need to be unsettled enough to want to do something about the situation, but there needs to be a catalyst for doing so. That’s where all of the research comes in.
If it seems like it might be an overwhelming endeavor to take on so much data and turn it into something that can be used to do further research and help communities, all while repeatedly getting ready to teach a full load for impending semesters, it’s likely because it is. Since she’s done it successfully before, however, Lichtveld has come to be pretty good at whittling down the data. She explained that she started her research in 2012 with 30,000 articles and from that has narrowed it down to about 153.
Lichtveld identified smoking in the home as the number one concern currently. Other possibilities she is finding that could possibly lead to obesity in children, like introducing antibiotics too early in a child’s life, BPA, an organic synthetic compound found in certain plastics, family income and stress, are certainly contenders, but, according to Lichtveld, need further research to pin down for certain.
A lot of this research and the way it’s conducted can be used in classes, Lichtveld said. Having students “think outside of the box” about things is always important, and teaching them how to conduct literature reviews and read technical papers is as well. “I think that any time we as faculty conduct research,” Lichtveld explained, “we strive to see how we can get others excited about the topic of our interest and also even get new direction ideas from students since they usually have a different perspective.”
Considering that the new paper is planned to be out by December, that means that Lichtveld has been researching for some six years. With that amount of commitment and often tedious work, when does it all become worth it? “When you have the data begin to fall out and you see the unexpected happen,” Lichtveld said, “and you’re able to start formulating a conceptual idea about how researchers should move forward, that’s when it gets exciting and fun. There’s the old adage that ‘we need to break the silos down.’ Getting chemists talking to toxicologists; public health officials talking to toxicologists. Everyone working together. Getting that conversation started is what it’s about.”