Momentum Center | Driving Discovery to End Childhood Obesity

Member Spotlight Archive


Dr. Brisa Sanchez

Dr. Sánchez is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biostatistics at the School of Public Health. She holds a PhD in Biostatistics from Harvard University. Her research involves developing statistical methods to analyze data in novel, more robust and efficient ways, thereby arriving at improved answers to substantive scientific questions. The motivation for this methodological research emanates from her extensive collaborations in cross-disciplinary projects, which span health disparities, environmental health, and policy evaluation. Dr. Sánchez believes that participating in diverse multidisciplinary teams is the perfect way to enrich science more broadly–by contributing her methodological expertise–as well as advance biostatistical methods–by creating new methodologies that are most needed and relevant to today’s health challenges.

Her work on childhood obesity began precisely as part of collaborations with the Children’s Environmental Health Center led by Prof. Karen Peterson, which focuses on examining the impact of multiple pollutants on obesity and metabolic markers within the ELEMENT project; as well as by her long standing collaborations with Prof. Sanchez-Vaznaugh from San Francisco State University, where they have conducted multiple studies to examine the impact of nutrition interventions on child obesity.

Dr. Sánchez directs the Biostatistics for Social Impact Collaboratory (B4SI), which focuses on developing statistical tools to facilitate scientific discoveries on the impact of social-environmental factors on health, including obesity. Ongoing research addresses methodological concerns in built environment research area regarding potential biases due to residential self-selection, as well as challenges from the point of view of measurement and analysis, including: the selection of geographic scales (and temporal scales in longitudinal studies); examination of multiple environment features simultaneously; and approaches to account for measurement error that exists in large scale built environment database. Lab members also develop latent variable and structural equation modeling approaches to examine the relationships between multiple environmental exposure biomarkers and health, and collaborate in studies that examine the potential benefits of policy interventions in reducing child obesity, and health disparities.



Dr. Laura Saslow

Dr. Laura Saslow is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Biological Sciences at the School of Nursing. She holds an MS in Teaching and Learning (Education) from Vanderbilt University and a PhD in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California Berkeley. She was also a Postdoctoral Scholar in Integrative Medicine at the University of California San Francisco. Although she hasn’t done any studies on childhood obesity yet, she is interested in doing so, particularly studying the impact of low-carbohydrate diets for weight loss, since in adults (and preliminarily in children, according to a small meta-analysis) they are more effective than low-fat diets for weight loss.

Dr. Saslow is currently working on a clinical trial evaluating three approaches for improving long term dietary adherence, including positive affect skills, mindfulness and mindful eating, and dietary tracking. The main program teaches a very low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet for adults with type 2 diabetes using an online and mobile format. She is also helping to mentor several students, including two projects in Thailand for adults with type 2 diabetes and a project to help motivate adults with prediabetes to join the Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP).  Additionally, Dr. Saslow is collaborating on a pilot study of a low-carbohydrate diet version of the DPP and, separately, testing the impact of adding mindful eating training to an in-person low-carbohydrate diet program for adults with type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Saslow is motivated to use science to help people make sustainable, enjoyable, and salutary health behavior changes. She enjoys the variety that being a professor involves: writing grants, doing research, mentoring students, writing publications, teaching, and service to the department and wider community. Her broad interests include educational technology, tech-based learning, food and flavor, sleep, and positive emotions and mindfulness, which she gets to combine in her research. We look forward to seeing how Dr. Saslow integrates these different areas of interest and her future contributions to the field of childhood obesity!



Dr. Alison Miller

Dr. Alison Miller is an Associate Professor in the Department of Health Behavior & Health Education in the School of Public Health. She earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Miller has always been interested in children who grow up in high-risk settings such as poverty, and in how and why some children are more resilient than others under these conditions. Her background and training is in early childhood development, particularly social and emotional development, stress regulation, and family relationships. She thinks of these factors in the child’s developmental context as potentially protective. Dr. Miller has examined these factors in relation to child social, emotional, behavioral and mental health outcomes, and in recent years turned her focus to obesity as it affects so many children, particularly young, low-income children. Many of the risk factors that underlie poor child physical, behavioral, and mental health outcomes are also important for obesity risk.

Dr. Miller has several obesity-related projects in the works. She is conducting an intervention study focused on self-regulation and eating behavior in low-income school-aged children; an interview-based study of mothers’ and fathers’ “coparenting” relationships around how they manage feeding their preschool-aged children; an observational study of how children of different ages signal satiety during naturalistic mealtimes; a study of how families talk about food at home; and a small pilot study (funded by the Momentum Center!) of an intervention to reduce maternal stress and examine maternal feeding and child eating and weight outcomes among mothers who have experienced trauma.

Dr. Miller’s work is a testament to the cross-disciplinary work of the Momentum Center. As a developmental psychologist, she sees value in articulating how many different domains of child development may shape health and/or obesity risk (for example, looking beyond specific healthy eating and exercise habits). Understanding and addressing the social and family contexts in which children develop is critical in order to craft effective interventions.  Dr. Miller views her experiences working with low-income families and with teachers in school settings as humbling and inspiring – individuals working with young children are doing incredibly important work and asked to do more all the time, yet are often very stressed and under-resourced.  She tries to bring both this whole child and family stress and coping perspective to her work in childhood obesity. We look forward to her further contributions to the field!



Dr. Pamela Davis-Kean

Dr. Pamela Davis-Kean is a Professor in the Department of Psychology and a Research Professor at the Institute for Social Research and the Center for Human Growth and Development. Her work focuses on parenting and child development. Currently, Dr. Davis-Kean is studying the transition into schooling and how it influences executive function measures and achievement. She is also working with Georgetown University on a recently funded MIDAS grant to find out what information parents are sharing and gathering on twitter. Her largest activity this year is reviewing birth cohorts in the UK to make recommendations on the future directions of the longitudinal research on families and children.

Dr. Davis-Kean notes that cross-disciplinary research is the best way to answer the complex problems in human development. Her work does not directly address childhood obesity. Rather, she studies parenting and child development, as the models for looking at multiple outcomes in children are very similar. She brings expertise on family process models and using representative, longitudinal data to cross-disciplinary research groups. Dr. Davis-Kean finds joy in doing the best science she can and ensuring it represents the study populations. She also enjoys seeing an increase in the rigor of psychological and medical science that can make a difference in the groups she studies. We look forward to Dr. Davis-Kean’s continued contributions to the field!



Dr. Wei Perng

Dr. Wei Perng is a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Epidemiology in the School of Public Health. She earned three degrees from the University of Michigan: a B.S. in Brain Behavior & Cognitive Science, an M.P.H. in Epidemiology, and a Ph.D. in Epidemiological Science. Dr. Perng’s interest in childhood obesity research stems from an initial interest in Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD). DOHaD is a field that revolves around the hypothesis that social and/or biological exposures during sensitive periods of development (e.g., the prenatal period and infancy) have a strong influence on a person’s predisposition towards health versus disease later in life. Because the field of DOHaD has historically focused on obesity-related chronic disease, Dr. Perng homed in on risk factors for these adverse health outcomes during early life (including childhood obesity), to gain a better understanding of potential avenues for preventive intervention.

Currently, most of Dr. Perng’s projects involve use of metabolomics, which is the study of low-molecular-weight compounds in biological tissues, to understand the etiology of obesity and obesity-related chronic disease. For example, in Project Viva, a Boston-area pre-birth cohort, Dr. Perng is characterizing cord blood metabolite patterns that are associated with maternal adiposity and glycemia during pregnancy, cord blood hormones, and newborn anthropometry. In ELEMENT, a Mexico City birth cohort, she is leading a pilot study to explore whether elevations in branched chain amino acids and acylcarnitines (a metabolite pattern previously implicated in pathogenesis of adult type 2 diabetes) precedes development of conventional metabolic risk factors like insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, and an altered adipocytokine profile. In addition to this work, Dr. Perng is also interested in perinatal epidemiology and women’s health. Within the Momentum Center, she enjoys being able to work with a diverse group of researchers to tackle one of the greatest current public health challenges and finds that her background and training in nutritional epidemiology, which focuses on the role that nutrition plays in disease development, is both applicable and complementary to the research of her colleagues within the Center. We look forward to her future projects!



Dr. Sandra Tang

Dr. Sandra Tang is a Research Investigator in the Department of Psychology and the Institute for Social Research, Survey Research Center. She earned her PhD in Applied Developmental and Educational Psychology at Boston College. Dr. Tang’s research has focused on the relationship between parenting and children’s achievement especially for families living in risky contexts, so obesity is a relatively new area of research for her. Her first exposure to obesity research was through an undergraduate internship with the Shape Up Somerville program, a multi-pronged approach to reducing obesity and promoting health through a citywide initiative. Through her experiences with this program, Dr. Tang began to learn about the complexities of the obesity problem.

Currently, Dr. Tang is the PI of a project that is creating a Food Access Module. This data module, which will be archived and made accessible to researchers, links geospatial information on various food outlets with the residential location of individuals in the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), the longest running nationally-representative study of socioeconomics and health in the world. Because this module is linked to the PSID, it can be used to examine food accessibility in conjunction with various individual- and family-level factors including socioeconomic background, health, and developmental outcomes that have been collected across multiple generations. The goal of this project is to provide a rigorous and valuable data module that can be used by researchers across disciplines to examine questions that will expand knowledge of how food accessibility relates to the health and wellbeing of families and children at a population-level.

Given that childhood obesity is a complex phenomenon that will rely on the collaborative efforts of researchers from a variety of perspectives to understand fully, Dr. Tang joined the Momentum Center because it is a place that fosters cross-disciplinary work.  As someone new to the world of obesity research, she hopes her membership in the Momentum Center will help her to learn more about the work that other researchers are engaged in with a particular focus on understanding how factors at different levels of the ecological system (e.g., built environment, social environment, family and individual factors, biology) relate to children’s weight status. Additionally, she hopes to find common research interests with others and have the opportunity to collaborate with center members in this area of research using the new Food Access Module to answer important questions. We are excited to have Dr. Tang as part of the team!



Dr. Dave Bridges

Dr. Dave Bridges, one of our newer Momentum Center members, is an Assistant Professor of Nutritional Sciences in the School of Public Health. Dr. Bridges received both a BSc and a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Calgary. He did his postdoctoral training at the University of Michigan. His lab is focused on uncovering the molecular mechanisms that control nutrient storage and utilization. One major area of work is investigating how hormones such as cortisol and insulin signal differently in obese versus lean individuals. Another major area of interest is how the nutrient sensing protein mTORC1 functions to modulate metabolism in various tissues.

In Dr. Bridges’ view, obesity has rapidly emerged as a major health concern and is possibly the most concentrated, dramatic shift in human metabolism in our history. Since this has happened so quickly there are a lot of unknowns in regard to the susceptibility of children and the long-term consequences of obesity. Understanding these fundamental changes at the molecular level is extremely important to understanding, predicting, and correcting some of the chronic health costs associated with obesity. He enjoys the puzzle of trying to understand how the many jagged pieces of metabolism, psychology, and the environment work together. We are excited that Dr. Bridges has joined our team and cannot wait to see where his research goes in the future!



Dr. Natalie Colabianchi

Dr. Natalie Colabianchi is an Associate Professor in the School of Kinesiology. She has been the principal investigator of five NIH grants and two Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Active Living Research grants, and is a co-investigator on five grants. All of these grants focus on physical activity, nutrition, obesity and/or the built environment. Additionally, Dr. Colabianchi was the chair for the Environmental and Contextual Factors in Health and Behavior Change section for the Society of Behavioral Medicine. She earned a MA in the Social Sciences from the University of Chicago and a PhD in Epidemiology at Case Western Reserve University.

Dr. Colabianchi’s work on childhood obesity began in the early 2000s. At the time, she was very involved in local coalitions addressing obesity and physical inactivity in Cleveland. She credits her experience working with the local Public Housing Authority in Cleveland addressing obesity in children living in public housing as a motivating force in her work to this day. Her motto is that all children should have the opportunity to grow up healthy. She notes that the most rewarding aspects of her work are making a positive difference in people’s lives and having the opportunity to train the next generation of scholars.

Dr. Colabianchi’s current projects include investigations into the role of environments and policy on health outcomes. She recently received an NIH R01 to examine the role of built and social environments on risk of stroke and to examine the degree to which environments explain the strong geographic and racial disparities in stroke incidence.  Additionally, she is leading an NIH study that is using an apparatus called GigaPan to document neighborhood features in a low-income community that is experiencing changes to their built environment.  This project compares the neighborhood characteristics defined based on this method to those neighborhood characteristics defined using direct observation and Google Earth. Finally, she is leading a study that examines whether and how living in public housing affects cancer risk behaviors as well as the potential mediators of this relationship.

These diverse projects perfectly represent the cross-disciplinary approach to ending childhood obesity. As Dr. Colabianchi notes, behaviors and relationships are complex and require multiple perspectives to shine a light on the associations and the solutions. We look forward to Dr. Colabianchi’s future contributions to childhood obesity research!



Dr. Ana Baylin

Dr. Ana Baylin is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and an Associate Professor of Nutritional Sciences in the School of Public Health. She holds an M.S. in Epidemiology and a Dr.P.H. in Nutritional Epidemiology from the Harvard School of Public Health, in addition to an MPH from the National School of Public Health and an MD from the University of Alcala de Henares, both in Madrid, Spain. She would like to be an eternal student, but sees being a professor as the next best thing. As a nutritional epidemiologist, the focus of her work is on adult obesity and cardiometabolic risk, but she sees childhood obesity research as a natural extension.

Dr. Baylin is currently working on projects targeting both childhood and adult obesity. One project in particular is investigating cheek cells and fatty acids from saliva as biomarkers of dietary fatty acids, as part of the Healthy Families Study. Another study is looking at LED skylight emulators (which follow a circadian rhythm and mimic sunlight) and their potential to prevent weight gain. With unlimited time and resources, Dr. Baylin would like to conduct a macro experiment between two cities, manipulating the many different factors that create an obesogenic environment, from walkability to food industry policies to work culture. We look forward to Dr. Baylin’s future diverse contributions to the Momentum Center and the growing body of research on obesity and cardiometabolic risk!



Dr. Weiyun Chen

Dr. Weiyun Chen is an Associate Professor in the School of Kinesiology Department of Health and Fitness, as well as the Director of the Physical Activity & Health Laboratory. She is driven by her concern for the suffering health and academic performance of school-aged children as the prevalence of childhood obesity continues to dominate as a public health concern. The focus of her research is the development and testing of physical activity interventions with the purpose of improving the physical and psychological health of children as well as boosting academic performance. In discussing what she most enjoys about her job, she cites the excitement and enrichment of working on meaningful research with students.

Currently, Dr. Chen is working on two projects. The first, Active School and Active Kids School-Based Intervention Study, intends to examine the effect of the Active School and Active Kids intervention on increasing daily physical activity, motor skills, and aerobic fitness and improving BMI in elementary school students. Her second project is entitled Active School, Active Family, and Active Community. This research intends to examine the comprehensive physical activity intervention strategies impacting daily physical activity, physical fitness, BMI, cognitive functions, and academic performance in elementary school students. We look forward to learning about the results of Dr. Chen’s research.



Dr. Joyce Lee

Dr. Joyce Lee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases as well as Environmental Health Sciences and Nutritional Sciences in the School of Public Health. She is a Pediatric Endocrinologist whose work screening and diagnosing type 2 diabetes in overweight and obese children led her to pursue childhood obesity research. She realized in the course of clinical care that there was a lack of information regarding the best tests to screen for diabetes. This inspired research focused on biomarkers in kids. Currently, Dr. Lee is studying the longitudinal test performance of conventional and novel metabolomics biomarkers for identifying prediabetes and type 2 diabetes in overweight and obese children, through an NIH grant.  In addition, she has conducted a variety of epidemiological studies focused on health risks in kids associate with obesity, such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, growth and development as well as some health policy studies focused on childhood obesity trends in the US.

Dr. Lee is being inspired by collaborative research – “I am enjoying an infusion of innovation into my work through the application of the methods of design thinking and participatory design to my research and clinical work.  I co-lead an interdisciplinary collaborative called  Healthdesignby.us, with the School of Medicine, and the Schools of Information and Art and Design.  Our mission is to integrate design thinking into the medical enterprise and to promote the participation of makers in the healthcare landscape, to partner with patients and caregivers to create opportunities for participatory design, citizen science, and open science research and to create tools and technology-based systems for transforming the patient experience. I truly believe that design has the power to transform healthcare research and healthcare delivery! Please join us! goo.gl/mEmaiO



Dr. Kendrin Sonneville

Dr. Kendrin Sonneville is an Assistant Professor of Nutritional Sciences in the School of Public Health. She is a behavioral scientist and registered dietitian who spent much of her early career working at Boston Children’s Hospital with adolescents diagnosed with eating disorders and/or obesity. It was this work that drove her to the pursuit of doctoral training in public health. She now studies the intersection of weight-related disorders, specifically, obesity and disordered eating with the hopes of understanding how we can “help without harming” and learn to promote health and nutrition without inadvertently increasing body dissatisfaction, weight stigma, preoccupation with food, and unhealthy dieting. Dr. Sonneville received a BS in Nutritional Sciences and a BS in Dietetics from Michigan State University, an MS in Human Nutrition from Tufts University, and a ScD in Public Health Nutrition from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Presently, Dr. Sonneville is working on several projects with a pronounced focus on adolescent health. The AHA funded project, “Early life predictors of disinhibited eating during adolescence”, aims to fill the gap in research on the relation between early childhood exposures and the appearance of disinhibited eating in adolescence. This will be accomplished by the testing of a conceptual model designed to review the ways in which these early childhood exposures, such as the characteristics of mother and child as well as environmental stress in the home, contribute to disinhibited eating in pre-adolescence. Furthermore, the study will look at the stability of the phenotype attributed to eating in the absence of hunger, throughout childhood and into pre-adolescence. The identification of risk factors will provide insight into the understanding of underlying causes of disinhibited eating.

Dr. Sonneville credits the Momentum Center with giving her the opportunity to form cross-disciplinary collaborations with top-caliber researchers from across the University of Michigan. Currently, she is conducting research on a pilot project funded by the Momentum Center entitled, “Weight-related terminology and conversations: Developing best practice for talking to adolescents about weight”. The proposed study seeks to identify adolescents’ preferred method(s) of communication regarding weight. Researchers will look specifically at the way adolescents perceive weight-related terminology and whether underlying messages, such as stigma and blame, are conveyed in conversations centered on weight. As a follow-up to the initial study, a pilot intervention will be conducted to test potential methods for talking to adolescent females with obesity about weight. We look forward to learning more about the findings from Dr. Sonneville’s research.



Dr. Sean Vance

Dr. Sean Vance is an Assistant Professor of Architecture in the Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning, teaching both graduate and undergraduate students in the Design and Health program. His innovative work spans disciplines and functions, demonstrating cross-disciplinary collaboration at its finest. His diverse projects have included design of elementary and secondary schools, design of commercial spaces, research on the use of products and built environment by people with disabilities, medical innovations for pediatric cancer treatment, and leading the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, among other projects. He received a B.Arch. from the University of Tuskegee and an M.Arch. from North Carolina State University.

Dr. Vance began his partnership with the Momentum Center after attending an innovation workshop with MC Director Karen Peterson and Tania Piotrowski. His experience in the practice of Architecture is the perfect complement to the Momentum Center. He sees collaboration as fostering his own educational growth and enjoys the opportunity to associate a spatial response to the vocabularies of other disciplines. He notes that it is a growing state of practice in architecture to work collaboratively, which is beneficial to design.

Dr. Vance’s current projects include an endeavor titled the Active Class Space project. This innovative research aims to better the childhood educational experience by encouraging activity breaks in classroom environments, in contrast to the traditional sedentary structure of a school day. The research will examine a range of metrics and solutions for introducing activity breaks. His work on the Active Class Project will no doubt contribute to the burgeoning wealth of research about the role school design and functionality play in health. We look forward to Sean’s future creative solutions and contributions that will further the field of childhood obesity.



Dr. Edward Norton

Dr. Edward Norton, health economist, is a Professor in both the Department of Health Management and Policy and the Department of Economics at the University of Michigan. Additionally, he is the Director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholars in Health Policy Research, a Research Affiliate at the Population Studies Center, and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research in the Health Economics Program. Formerly, he taught at UNC Chapel Hill and Harvard Medical School. His research interests include health economics, long-term care and aging, and econometrics. Dr. Norton holds an A.B. in Economics from Princeton and a Ph.D. in Economics from MIT.

Dr. Norton joins a group of interdisciplinary Momentum Center researchers from fields outside of public health who began childhood obesity projects after collaborations with others. His first foray into obesity research was about a decade ago. While working at UNC, two of Dr. Norton’s doctoral students investigated the economics of obesity both domestically and abroad. One of the students researched whether obese men and women are paid less than their slender colleagues in the United States and the other student looked into the economic causes of obesity and rapid economic development in China.

Since this initial venture, Dr. Norton has relished the opportunity to work with colleagues who also have an interest in childhood obesity and value input from economists. His work since joining the Momentum Center has increasingly looked into the economic causes of obesity going back to childhood and adolescence and the possible influence of these formative years on adult obesity.  He is currently conducting research on the long-term causes and consequences of obesity. This research follows individuals for several decades and looks at how life decisions surrounding education, marriage, children, labor force participation, and health are related to obesity.



Dr. Ashley Gearhardt

Dr. Ashley Gearhardt is a Momentum Center member and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology. Driven by the opportunity to collaborate with creative and brilliant people and a love of learning new things, Dr. Gearhardt’s research embodies the cross-disciplinary spirit of the Momentum Center.

Dr. Gearhardt’s publications include investigations into food and addiction, media, and eating disorders. Her work also involves bio-behavioral animal models to inform theories that guide her research. Her current projects involve investigating the connection between food marketing and obesity. Specifically, she is trying to discover whether the brain reward centers of teenagers at risk for obesity light up more to food advertising and whether this increases their likelihood of overeating. She is also investigating whether junk food can trigger addictive-like processes in children, possibly increasing obesity risk.

Dr. Gearhardt began her career working with adults, but after successful collaboration with Momentum Center members, she has increasingly been involved in investigating the treatment and prevention of childhood obesity. She sees prevention from a young age as a key strategy to combat obesity because of the difficulty of changing established habits in adulthood. The connection between food and addiction is especially important in children because they are more vulnerable to the negative effects of addictive substances.

When asked what she would study if she had unlimited time and resources, Dr. Gearhardt said she would want to investigate whether food composition (like sugar and fat content) can change the brain in a manner similar to addictive drugs. We look forward to hearing about Dr. Gearhardt’s future projects.