Nicole Giuliani | UO's Health Promotion and Obesity Prevention Initiative

Brain food: Nicole Giuliani looks to the mind to study food choices

For half a decade Nicole Giuliani has worked as a research associate alongside UO brain scientists Elliot Berkman, Phil Fisher and Jennifer Pfeifer in the Department of Psychology. She is now a full-fledged faculty member in the UO's new Health Promotion and Obesity Prevention Initiative.

Her new aim is to map out, through collaborations with her peers, individual- and family-based interventions drawn from her research on basic brain processes and mechanisms that are tied to emotion and self-regulation when it comes to eating decisions.

"I am really interested in figuring out the ways that we can predict actual, real-world behavior using what we've identified in the lab," she said.
Staying on at the UO, she added, was an easy decision.

"I have lived in Eugene for five years now, but find myself viewing it with fresh eyes now that I know I will be continuing my career here," said Giuliani, who holds a doctorate from Stanford University. "I appreciate the temperate climate, the delicious food and drink, the lack of traffic and how many fun things there are to do in town with my family."

To date, she said, research has provided insights into how people make poor decisions when they crave food. "It has given us suggestions on ways to circumvent that effortful regulation, to try to motivate people to eat better," she said. "We've been able to use theories from social psychology and from developmental psychology, and we're trying to help people engage in better health behaviors without having them work so hard."

Giuliani, who in 2003 earned a bachelor's degree with honors from the University of Pennsylvania focusing on psychology and the biological basis of behavior, is currently seeking funding to pursue new research into how brain mechanisms she and her colleagues have identified that may relate to how some populations of people respond to health messaging.

This fall she launched a graduate-level seminar introducing neuroscience to educators to make them better consumers of developments in the field and help them apply neuroscience approaches to their own research. In winter term, she will teach a course directly related to her research: cognitive and affective aspects of behavior.

Giuliani is one of four early-career scholars chosen this year to begin filling the initiative, which was one of the Clusters of Excellence announced in 2014 by the provost. The Health Promotion and Obesity Prevention Initiative received a boost when UO alumna Connie Ballmer, a 1984 graduate, and her husband, Steve, gave $20 million in philanthropic support as part of their $50 million gift to the UO’s $2 billion fundraising campaign. The other three hires in the cluster are Nichole Kelly, Elizabeth Budd and Tasia Smith.

"I feel really grateful to be part of this cluster and to be part of this group of scientists who are coming at this really important question from different angles and all starting together at the same time," Giuliani said. "I feel like there are a lot of natural angles for collaboration."

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications

NOTE: This story is the third of four Friday stories about faculty members hired for the Health Promotion and Obesity Prevention Initiative in the UO's Clusters of Excellence.