February 2017 Newsletter

February 2017 Newsletter

February 2017

Message from the Dean

Answering God’s call…a conversation that is intentional and unique to Baylor and other Christian institutions. When having those discussions with alumni and friends of Baylor the exchange is usually about students answering their calling, looking for ways to extend their faith through their profession. What is always enjoyable is sharing how Baylor faculty are answering God’s call by coming to Baylor and to the surprise of many that answer is demonstrably exhibited in their research. As Baylor strives to be a Christian research institution, the Robbins College has many gifted and talented faculty engaged in research that changes lives and improves quality of life. Many of the projects are an attempt to help those in need, those suffering emotional and physical pain, those who are healthy and wish to slow aging processes, those who are sick or are recovering from a disease or helping an aging population delay physical and cognitive decline.

Faculty serving as educators and scholars are a great benefit to our students who engage right along with them in this important research effort. A seminal moment in my understanding of my calling was when I witnessed the physical, emotional and functional difficulties of a close family member battling a life altering disease. I realized that one of my callings was research that can identify ways in which to add to the options of easing a treatment burden or a means to find novel treatments for the very ill.

Answering God’s call occurs in many different ways. This e-newsletter highlights some of the great work in which our faculty are answering their calling through research. Importantly these projects have some common elements to them. First, faculty engage in this work for very personal reasons. As evidenced below, for some of our faculty, looking for new discoveries to help prevent and/or treat a disease they had so that others may live a good quality of life is answering their call. For others, helping those in need to improve the understanding of nutritional factors in disease prevention and quality of life to prevent future suffering and provide good food choices is answering their call. For some, they wish to help others change their perception of people with speech disorders of which they themselves have is answering their call.

A second commonality is all projects listed in this e-newsletter (and most all Robbins research projects) involve students at the undergraduate and graduate level in very meaningful ways. Students participate in the idea creation, lead parts of the projects and write to disseminate the information through publications and presentations. The projects highlighted are tangible ways in which Robbins faculty are answering God’s call, changing lives and mentoring our students.

Listeners' Perceptions and Stuttering

Stuttering Research Group

Dr. Paul Blanchet is currently examining listeners’ perceptions of people with communication disorders, particularly stuttering and/or cluttering. As a person who stutters (PWS), Dr. Blanchet decided to initiate this line of research in 2005 which has grown into a multi-study, transdisciplinary endeavor encompassing students, alumni and faculty from various fields (e.g., psychology, sociology).

At the 2014 Oxford Dysfluency Conference, many professionals were encouraging of his research, including staff from the prestigious Michael Palin Center in London, UK. Dr. Blanchet has since conducted several follow-up studies including one that examines the effects of self-disclosure (or acknowledgment) of stuttering on university students’ perceptions of a person who stutters. A URC grant enabled him to hire six undergraduate research assistants to assist with data collection and data entry.

Findings of this study will add further support for clinical use of self-disclosure, which is also referred to as “acknowledgment” or “advertising” in some stuttering treatment programs. Although this strategy has been utilized to great effect by many PWS for decades, there is a need for further research demonstrating the benefits of disclosure, empirically. Clinically, self-disclosure is a simple yet extraordinarily powerful strategy that encourages openness and honesty, and facilitates positive communicative interactions between PWS and their listeners. Some clients view it as giving them permission to stutter, and it is often useful when working on becoming desensitized to stuttering. It is one of many such coping strategies discussed in the Baylor University Speech-Language Clinic Stuttering Support Group, which Dr. Blanchet co-founded in 2015 with Baylor’s CSD Clinic Coordinator, Mrs. Deborah Rainer.

In future studies, Dr. Blanchet plans to supplement the perceptual rating scales he currently uses with physiological measures (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure, skin conductance). This will more accurately and completely measure listeners’ responses and reactions to stuttered speech, and will increase the likelihood of obtaining external funding for future studies in the line of inquiry. These studies will utilize his new Biopac wireless physiography system, located in the Fluency Disorders Research Lab in Cashion on Baylor’s Campus in Waco.

Human Microbiome and the Risk of Disease

Two Students in Lab Coats Study A Microbiome at a lab bench

One of the strongest modifiable risk factors for several types of cancers, apart from smoking, is obesity. Emerging evidence is now showing that the microbiome, the collection of bacteria, fungi, viruses and archaea that live in and on our bodies, is associated with both obesity and cancer. As a cancer survivor herself, Dr. Leigh Greathouse’s research focuses on identifying dietary factors, biomarkers and microbes that can predict risk or restore the microbiome to reduce obesity and cancer risk.

In order to accomplish this, Dr. Greathouse research group conducts both population studies to identify modifiable dietary factors and biomarkers association with microbial alterations, and molecular studies to identify the mechanism by which microbes communicate with the immune system to control inflammation. This summer they will begin one of the first microbiome studies in patients undergoing treatment for colon cancer to determine if their microbiome prior to treatment is predictive of treatment side effects, recurrence and survival.

Another study that is currently ongoing in collaboration with Baylor Nursing faculty, Mary Ann Faucher, is analyzing the microbiome in women who are obese and pregnant to identify changes in their microbiota that are associated with risk of pre-term birth, a risk factor of obesity during pregnancy. In collaboration with Dr. Joe Taube, Baylor Biology Department, Dr. Greathouse’s research group is addressing the outstanding questions surrounding the mechanism of microbe-host communication. Together they are looking specifically at small pieces of genetic material shed by bacteria, small RNAs, that may signal how cells alter their expression of factors that control inflammation.

This research is on the cutting edge of understanding how our microbiome can dramatically alter our health and risk of disease. The results may lead to:

  1. Biomarkers to predict risk of survival or recurrence of colon cancer
  2. Species that could be targeted for elimination or enhancement to prevent long-term damage from chemotherapy and morbidity from colon cancer
  3. Mechanism that identify how the microbiome communicates with the immune system, which may lead to new drugable targets

Use of Mobile Food Markets in Food Deserts

A wooden cart full of produce sits outside a mobile food market

Unhealthy eating behaviors are major contributors to the obesity epidemic in the United States. Food environments in low-income neighborhoods are often characterized by limited access to healthy food. One potential strategy to improve the local food environment is a mobile farmers market, which can offer local, affordable fruits and vegetables in food deserts, or areas where substantial proportions of residents have limited access to affordable and nutritious food.

In central Texas, World Hunger Relief, Inc., (WHRI) introduced a mobile farmers market called the Veggie Van in January 2015. The purpose of the Veggie Van is to increase access to fresh, local produce in Waco. Initially, the Van began offering produce at one stop every week; since that time, the utilization of the Van has increased and it currently has about 10 stops in different locations in Waco throughout the week.

The Baylor public health program partnered with WHRI to assess Veggie Van users. The goal was to describe who uses the Veggie Van, why someone uses the Van, and how the Veggie Van can be more effective. Survey design was a partnership between Dr. Kelly Ylitalo, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology in the Baylor Public Health Program, and Matt Hess, Executive Director of World Hunger Relief, Inc. Survey questions included basic demographic information, healthy eating behaviors like average daily fruit and vegetable intake, potential barriers and facilitators of healthy eating, and usage of the Veggie Van including frequency of visits and food purchase preferences.

Baylor epidemiology students were trained to administer the 5-minute survey, and people who participated in the survey received $5 in Veggie Bucks to be used for future fruit and vegetable purchases from the Veggie Van. The survey took place from January thru May and September thru December 2016 and was supported, in part, by funds from the Baylor University Research Committee and the Vice Provost for Research.

Dr. Ylitalo hopes that the results of the survey can be used to inform other mobile farmers market programs around the country, and eventually be used to design a health intervention for Van customers in the Waco area. “As a public health community, if we can understand who is using them—in terms of eating behaviors, barriers to healthy eating, facilitators of healthy eating, etc.—then perhaps mobile markets can be tailored to meet the needs of the customers and even serve as a basis for health-related interventions that can reduce obesity and its related health conditions like diabetes.” said Dr. Kelly Ylitalo.

Get Involved

The Robbins College invites you to engage and support our efforts in developing tomorrow’s Christian leaders in health and human sciences. There are multiple opportunities to be involved with the College, including attending lecture series or campus events or donating to our continued development of excellence in research, teaching and community engagement.