Kelly Ylitalo

Season 3 - Episode 340

October 9, 2020

Kelly Ylitalo
Kelly Ylitalo

Kelly Ylitalo combines high-level, data-driven research with practical community partnerships that address upstream health issues. Dr. Ylitalo, assistant professor of epidemiology in Baylor’s Department of Public Health, focuses her research on physical functioning, obesity and the impact of healthy behaviors on aging trajectories. In this Baylor Connections, she takes listeners inside her partnerships with Waco’s Family Health Center and World Hunger Relief to study the effectiveness of innovative health approaches.

Transcript

Derek Smith:

Hello and welcome to Baylor connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith and our guest today is Kelly Ylitalo. Dr. Ylitalo serves as assistant professor of epidemiology in Baylor's department of public health. Dr. Ylitalo's research interests include physical functioning, obesity and physical activity and how healthy behaviors can facilitate healthy aging. She researched project strive partnerships with community organizations that address these issues. In 2019, she earned a coveted career development award from the national institutes of health to partner with local health organizations to test and develop new methods for capturing and interpreting health data. She partners with Waco's family health center and world hunger relief to study the effectiveness of innovative programs taking place in those organizations to address health through exercise and produce prescriptions. She's also one of the stars of our 2020 ad campaign and she is with us today here on the program. Dr. Ylitalo thanks so much for joining us. It's great to have you here.

Kelly Ylitalo

Thank you for having me today.

Derek Smith:

Well, great to visit with you and learn more about your research, which is at the intersection of it's well-funded, it's data-driven R-1 research, and it also has a very practical aspect. And as you partner with organizations, we mentioned family health center and world hunger relief who serve the community. So broadly, what does it mean to you to be able to do that, to combine that high level research aspect that impacts boots on the ground service where you live?

Kelly Ylitalo

I think for me, it's an opportunity to think globally and act locally. So as a researcher and part of my job, I publish and disseminate work, and that's really important because research findings contribute to evidence-based practices and health research all over the world. But for me personally, my work is very meaningful because I'm a local resident of Waco myself. So supporting local organizations that are making an impact in our community means that I get to see the immediate benefit of my work. And that is a really rewarding opportunity. It helps me conduct applied research that I think really matters. And that has very practical implications for supporting health in central Texas.

Derek Smith:

As we dive into that research I want to ask you, when we talk about epidemiology and public health, there's a lot of ways people can wrap their heads around that. How should we think about the ways you approach that through your work?

Kelly Ylitalo

I think the driving motivation behind my work is that there is a face behind every number. What I mean by that is we live in a very data-driven world. And as a quantitative researcher, there are almost endless opportunities with large volumes of data from a variety of different sources, but for epidemiology and public health, we're really talking about health research. And so there is a person behind those data points. There's a real complex person who lives in a very real complex environment. And when we remove the complexity and the humanity, that person is lost. So there's a face behind every number. Helps me remember to keep the person at the forefront of everything I do. So for my research partners here in Waco, for example, everything we do, every question we ask on a survey, for example, I want to make sure that there's a direct connection to something that will benefit that person who is so generously participating in my study with their time and information.

Derek Smith:

So Dr. Ylitalo, obviously I know a big aspect of your work is the data in front of a computer. And you're working with local organizations, you know them well there. How can we think about public health in terms of how the data that you receive here locally through your research can be thought of from a broader impacts, impacting other communities?

Kelly Ylitalo

Epidemiology is sometimes called population health. And what that means is an epidemiologist is looking at how health and disease is distributed or occurring in large groups of people. So a healthcare provider or physician works one-on-one with a person or a patient. Where an epidemiologist works with large groups of people and data from those people can be published and use to understand overarching patterns of health and disease, not only in our community, but how it might be similar or dissimilar to other communities around the world.

Derek Smith:

We are visiting with Dr. Kelly Ylitalo, assistant professor of epidemiology at Baylor. And you yourself are a Baylor graduate. And I know initially you majored in biology. So how did Baylor shape your interest in public health that you just described? Where did that come from?

Kelly Ylitalo

Well, I did. I majored in biology and I also have a minor in medical humanities. So I think looking back, I had an interest in the humanity of science and disease, but I didn't really have any knowledge of public health as a discipline at the time. But when I was a junior, I traveled with Jimmy Dorrell, who is the executive director of Mission Waco Mission World to Haiti on what we called an exposure trip to learn more about the world's hunger relief farm in Haiti. And looking back on that trip, I can really see that as an important landmark because I really began to understand health at a community level and how critical public health infrastructure is for an entire population.

Derek Smith:

What aspects of that really touched you, particularly as it relates to your faith and serving others?

Kelly Ylitalo

Well, when I think of the foundational mission of public health, I really think of safeguarding vulnerable populations and making sure that every person in every population has an opportunity to be healthy. So from a faith perspective, I think of Jesus caring for the most vulnerable populations, especially those who are sick, which to me is a social justice message. And so loving others in your community or globally and supporting health opportunities and health equity, I think is at the very intersection of Christian faith and public health. So for me, that missional component means that public health is a way for me to live out my personal faith.

Derek Smith:

What led you to come back to Baylor and joined the faculty after you'd pursued your higher ed degrees in epidemiology?

Kelly Ylitalo

When I was looking for faculty positions, I really liked the opportunity I saw at Baylor to participate in building the public health program. And so one of the things I've gotten to do at Baylor is to help build the epidemiology program specifically. I went to different institutions for my master of public health degree and my PhD, but it's been really rewarding to come back to Baylor, to serve on faculty because I had such a great undergraduate experience at Baylor. I loved being in small classes where I really got to know my professors. And so I'm hopeful now that I'm on the other side of that, that I can pass on those same great experiences to my students and kind of pay it forward.

Derek Smith:

You mentioned helping develop the program. I know Baylor has invested quite a bit in public health in recent years. Can you share with us a little bit of what that growth has looked like recently?

Kelly Ylitalo

Sure. I joined the Baylor faculty full-time in 2015 and there was already a lot of momentum at that point. But over the past five years, the public health program, we've become our own department. So we're now the department of public health. We've focused on increasing our graduate programs. So we now offer a master of public health degree or an MPH degree with three concentrations. Community health, epidemiology, and then in partnership with a department across campus, the environmental health sciences and pH. We already have a degree at the bachelor's level and we're adding a PhD program that I think that growth doesn't happen without new faculty members. And so that's a huge investment on the part of the university. And I think that's been the biggest investment I've seen is how many faculty we've hired over the past five years to really support our new graduate programs

Derek Smith:

Visiting with Dr. Kelly Ylitalo and you mentioned your experience here with small classes and you're building the program now. And I know you and a lot of your colleagues in public health, it's not just you, but a lot of people in your department are doing some fantastic research. What does that as Baylor pursues R-1, how does that research impact the work you do in the classroom with students?

Kelly Ylitalo

Well, I think one of the things that I try to do is, I try to have an intersection of teaching and research. So I try to bring my students along in research, whether it be as part of a service learning project, where we're experiencing real world research, real-world data collection, or one-on-one with more individual mentored projects. But I try to bring my students along in some way, because my hope is to really pass on a passion for research that is at the intersection of social justice and health and data sciences.

Derek Smith:

This is Baylor connections. We are visiting with Dr. Kelly Ylitalo, assistant professor of epidemiology in Baylor's department of public health. And you described to us your journey to public health. How did you hone in more specifically on your specific interest areas of physical functioning activity and other areas that have impact on aging?

Kelly Ylitalo

I had the opportunity to work on a large study focusing on women's health called the study of women's health across the nation. And one of the earliest things I looked at was walking speed, which is a measure of physical functioning. And I noticed that there were very small differences in walking speed when women were in their mid forties that were quite exacerbated over time. So that by about 15 years later, when this same group of several thousand women were in their early sixties, a substantial portion could not walk at a speed that would allow them to use a crosswalk safely. And I think I really made a connection between something that we can measure in research study and how that actually translates to someone's everyday life. And for aging, I think most of us tend to think that aging is something that happens to either other people or something that's very far in our future. But I think what I realized from the study on walking is that our functioning in our midlife really sets the trajectory for our future and our future health. So when I think about physical activity or healthy eating, for example, those are two of the most important health behaviors we can do and have across our entire life to really set us up for healthy aging because they're preventing or delaying functional limitations. And things like slow walking speed or core strength and balance, which are going to affect our ability to safely navigate our environment.

Derek Smith:

Talking to Dr. Kelly Ylitalo and let's tie it into a project that you've been working on mentioned at the top of the show. You received a very prestigious career development award, highly sought after from the national institutes of health. Very tangibly, it brings in $626,000 in research funding, but more broadly, what does it mean to earn that award? And how does it A, enable you to partner with the organizations and tie that work into the interest you just described?

Kelly Ylitalo

It's a huge honor to receive this award and be the recipient of an investment by the national institute of health. This is a career development award, which allows me to continue learning and growing as a scholar. I came to Baylor with a lot of experience in physical functioning in diabetes related conditions, but I really didn't have a lot of experience in physical activity. So this is a five-year award and it gives me time to focus and develop expertise in physical activity. So I can add it to my research agenda as a primary focus. And my hope is that I can really do a deep dive into the relationship between physical functioning and physical activity from both a community and health equity standpoint.

Derek Smith:

Obviously working with a family health center and by extension world hunger relief, what are the programs that they're offering that provide you that unique local opportunity to study that?

Kelly Ylitalo

The Waco family health center implemented a wellness center, which is an onsite exercise facility. And patients receive prescriptions from physicians to visit the wellness center and receive one-on-one exercise training from a fitness advisor. And they have a complimentary program called the produce prescription program, which again, uses prescriptions to distribute boxes of fresh vegetables that are grown by the world hunger relief farm. So these are both amazing programs that are going on at the family health center here in Waco. And I'm in a supporting role for both programs. I collect and evaluate data on program utilization and then health data.

Derek Smith:

So Dr. Ylitalo, obviously family health center and world hunger relief are taking a novel approach more than just a suggesting a prescription or medicine, but trying to do some upstream methods of helping people become healthier. What are some of the questions that they and you are trying to ask and trying to answer through this research?

Kelly Ylitalo

We do focus on upstream approaches to health. Those are factors that really promote or impede health. And we think of them as the social determinants of health. So these are factors that are economic or physical or social, and again, they guide the distribution and access to resources. Broadly these factors are things like education and income and racism and poverty. They are factors in neighborhoods like safety and community assets like sidewalks or lighting or access to affordable healthy food options. But I think what's really important about these factors is that the social determinants of health have a higher impact on population health than healthcare. So if we want to make good investments in our community and develop programs that support the social determinants of health, that actually gives us the biggest bang for our buck in terms of a healthy, productive society.

Derek Smith:

I know your work is really at the intersection with two of the five signature academic initiatives of illuminate, health and data sciences. So how have you been able to maybe more technically even help them help uncover some of those answers?

Kelly Ylitalo

I think epidemiology is the perfect intersection of health and data sciences. It's a very collaborative discipline. And so my work in supporting the programs is just one example of a collaboration that's going on in our community. Very practically. I spend time in program meetings brainstorming with my partners. I spend time analyzing data. I supervise graduate students who are working on their internships in epidemiology and public health. I give feedback data to the physicians who are writing prescriptions for the wellness center and produce programs, so they know how their prescriptions are being used. And just quite basically, I try to be very useful and think about how my time or skills could meet a need and support whatever the organization needs.

Derek Smith:

Dr. Ylitalo, it's an upstream method of approaching health, as you mentioned. What aspects so far through the first couple of years, or not quite couple of years have been most interesting to you and maybe your most make it even more exciting for you going forward?

Kelly Ylitalo

Well, for the exercise prescription program at family health center, we just published the first manuscript this summer. And that paper followed the first 1100 or so patients who received a prescription from their health care provider to use the exercise facility. And I think one of the most interesting things was that within this large data set we saw that older adults and adults who were less active when they received the prescription, actually had more visits to the wellness center over time. And I think those findings are really interesting and really promising because to me, it suggests that the wellness center is an asset in the community because it's supporting exercise opportunities for priority populations and for patients who may not have had opportunities for exercise otherwise.

Derek Smith:

What do the partnerships mean to you. As we did the campaign, we got to see a little bit of that work with them, with world hunger relief and I know family health center as well. What does it mean to you to partner with those people again, who are doing some pretty incredible work?

Kelly Ylitalo

I think partnership is such a privilege. I think the best work is done in collaboration. And so I'm excited about all of the partnership opportunities. And down the road, I envision more funding opportunities that could potentially allow these programs to be scaled up, to ultimately support and address some of the social determinants of health and really support a healthy Waco.

Derek Smith:

Visiting with Dr. Kelly Ylitalo. And Dr. Ylitalo as we wind down thinking about the research and it's future the next few years and its impact beyond Baylor. What are some of your big hopes as you look ahead?

Kelly Ylitalo

I think my biggest hope is that disseminating some of the findings related to the great work that's going on here in Waco could actually serve as a model for other communities who really want to explore ways to support community health that go beyond high-quality healthcare alone. I think that's the ultimate hope. And then I think secondary to that is as a teacher at Baylor, as I bring my students along in research, I really hope to pass on a passion for lifelong learning and research that is very practical and really lies at the intersection of social justice and health.

Derek Smith:

Well, that's great. Well, Dr. Ylitalo thanks so much for your time today. We really appreciate you coming on and sharing your research and we'll look forward to hearing more about the fruits of those partnerships in the years ahead. Thank you.

Kelly Ylitalo

Thank you so much Derek.

Derek Smith:

Dr. Kelly Ylitalo, assistant professor of epidemiology in Baylor's department of public health, our guest today on Baylor connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder you can hear this and other programs online, baylor.edu/connections. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor connections.