Nichole Kelly joins health cluster to improve eating behaviors

Nichole Kelly | UO's Health Promotion and Obesity Prevention Initiative

Nichole Kelly — one of four young scholars recruited into the UO's Health Promotion and Obesity Prevention Initiative — spent part of her summer getting to know local community leaders and the challenges they face when dealing with childhood obesity.

With fall quarter here, she said, she's ready to hit the ground running as part of the initiative, which was chosen as one of the UO's Clusters of Excellence in 2014.

"The primary goal of my research is to identify effective strategies for improving eating behaviors in order to help children and their families live healthier lives," said Kelly, who joined the UO after working as postdoctoral researcher at the National Institutes of Health. "An important first step in achieving this goal is to familiarize myself with the health status and behaviors of Oregon families."

By summer's end, Kelly had already talked by phone and had meetings with community leaders to learn about existing programs and policies that have been successful in promoting healthy eating and exercise behaviors.

"During these discussions, I have become increasingly aware of some of the barriers for health-promoting behaviors, particularly healthy-eating patterns," she said. "My initial impressions of Eugene are overwhelmingly positive. I already feel at home."

Kelly holds a doctorate in counseling psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research at the NIH focused on building brain-based models for studying eating behavior and excess weight gain in young people. At the heart of her NIH fellowship, she asked whether "cognitive resources — or the lack thereof — play a role in overeating behaviors in kids."

Based on her early meetings with several UO faculty members and students, "It quickly became evident that the Prevention Science Institute is an ideal place to conduct a program of research that will have a meaningful influence on the lives of others."

"The UO is home to countless bright, creative and experienced faculty conducting rigorous research spanning multiple disciplines," she said. "It is my belief that a multidisciplinary approach is vital to enhancing our understanding of both the causes and effective prevention of a complex physical, psychological and sociocultural issue like obesity."

Kelly has submitted two grant applications to test the potential usefulness of an intervention that promotes healthier eating habits among Oregon's elementary schoolchildren. The work would be a collaboration with Beth Stormshak and John Seeley of the Prevention Science Institute.

In winter quarter, Kelly will teach Health Promotion and Equity, a new graduate course in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services. "I am incredibly excited to teach this course because my research and clinical experiences will directly shape the content of the curriculum," she said. The course will explore the importance and limitations of theory and research, and brainstorm strategies for addressing the limitations."

Kelly said she plans to challenge her students to seek understanding of the difficulties associated with health behavior change and reflect on the individual, interpersonal, cultural and community factors that shaped their own experiences. That, she added, might stimulate creative ideas and strategies to improve the health and well-being of children and their families in the communities around them.

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications

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