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My summer experience: Research in adapting family-based behavioral treatment

Written by Mahadevan Subramanian, ScB candidate in biology and public health at Brown University, and a SPRIGHT Scholar in the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

This summer, through the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public and Global Health Track, I have the opportunity to work with Denise Wilfley, PhD and Jessica Jakubiak, WashU PhD candidate. I have been working on a clinical trial adapting family-based behavioral treatment (FBT)–the gold standard for weight loss–for overweight and obesity in childhood survivors of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).

Childhood survivors of ALL are at an increased risk of obesity compared to the general population, and this can lead to comorbidities such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The way the body mass index (BMI) is calculated means that a younger person needs to lose less weight to be at a healthy BMI compared to an older person, and in the context of ALL, this emphasizes the importance that early intervention can have in preventing the development of comorbidities related to obesity. This is where FBT comes in. FBT consists of 26 individual and group sessions on topics such as healthy eating habits, exercise, body image, social networks etc. While FBT is primarily a weight management intervention, its main focus is cultivating long-term healthy habits in patients and their families – helping them lose weight and maintaining that weight loss post-treatment.

Based on focus groups conducted last fall, I have been working with Jessica and an undergraduate, Nancy Hulslander, to include topics such as the perception of excess weight as conferring protective effects, the influence of treatment on eating habits, mental health concerns, and parental concerns about their child’s ability to exercise into our program materials. Recruitment of patients is slated to begin this month from clinics at WashU and elsewhere in the United States, and patients and their caregivers will participate in FBT for four months virtually.

As someone interested in attending medical school to become a pediatrician after my time in college, I have enjoyed getting to work with Wilfley and Jakubiak, as it has given me the opportunity to apply the theoretical public health concepts I’ve learned about research studies and child health in a real-world setting through helping adapt this clinical trial. Being a part of the summer research program has reinforced my desire to attend medical school and to pursue a MPH after college, and I am excited to continue my studies in public health after this summer. I am thankful to both the institute and to my mentors for giving me this opportunity to work with them over the summer.

Author in front of downtown Portland, Oregon