But they all face some of the same challenges in their research. The biology of populations and the behavior of individuals can lead to some apparent paradoxes and contradictions, making it difficult to tease out causes and effects — an effort that is critical to designing effective interventions.
For example, Papas noted that while average BMI (body mass index) is generally lower in areas with high "walkability" — that is, densely populated multiuse urban areas with sidewalks — planners shouldn't jump to the conclusion that quantitative measures of walkability will automatically translate into increased physical activity. "Other factors may play a greater role in influencing obesity in economically disadvantaged areas," she said.
Similarly, Melby noted that the consumption of soy products seems to have a beneficial effect on menopausal symptoms in Japanese women but not in Americans. It turns out that a metabolite found more commonly in Japanese women may account for this phenomenon, so a simple dietary change in American women is not the answer.
Michalec pointed to the current emphasis on a team-based approach to health care, where most research to date has focused on the patient. "But what do health sciences students think of this, and how does it impact providers?" he asked. Michalec cited work on baboons showing that the complete absence of a social hierarchy can create even more problems than the presence of a rigid one.
Lively question-and-answer sessions followed each of the 20-minute presentations, including active engagement among the three presenters.
"We have a great deal of ability to explore these issues and a variety of people in the audience — including funders, mentors, and collaborators — to keep this conversation going," said discussion moderator Joseph Pika. "And I think this experience has helped to build a network among these three young researchers that will help them as they move forward with their work."