Pilot Class of ELISS Scholars Delves Into Some of Society’s Toughest Problems

In urban neighborhoods and small towns devoid of large supermarkets and other sources of fresh, wholesome food — a situation described as a "food desert" — fast food joints and street corner convenience stores are an alternative. But the processed foods and snacks they purvey often do not provide enough healthy, affordable options.

The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, specialists say. How to change that situation was one of the topics addressed by a group of graduate students participating in a new AAAS pilot project aimed at preparing graduate and professional students to collaborate across boundaries on tough societal problems.

Benjamin Chrisinger | AAAS/Earl Lane

After a year of team-building and zeroing in on specific issues of concern, participants in the Emerging Leaders in Science & Society (ELISS) program gathered at AAAS on 5 December to discuss what they had learned and share their findings with D.C.-based stakeholders.

Regarding access to healthy foods, the students described how intractable the problem can be and how important it is to reach both retailers and consumers on their own terms. Benjamin Chrisinger, a graduate student in city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, said corner stores often operate on thin profit margins and may not have the equipment or incentives to stock fresh fruits and vegetables. Such stores need interventions "that are cost neutral or cost positive," he said. Solutions also need to be citywide, he said, so that individual store owners do not feel singled out for criticism.

Use of better labeling to encourage healthier food choices also must take into account language and cultural norms of consumers, Chrisinger said. In Philadelphia, healthy food advocates have been exploring the use of simple, recognizable "red light, green light" symbols on food labels, he said.

The pilot ELISS program was started with a group of 16 graduate students from four schools: Purdue University, Stanford University, the University of Washington, and the University of Pennsylvania.  The teams studied three areas: mental health stigma, food choices, and use of open space for sustainable design.

Jonathan Kershaw (above) and Janis Johnston | AAAS/Earl Lane

"These are graduate and professional students who want to make a difference in the world beyond their disciplines," said Melanie Roberts, a founder of the ELISS program and its director. "Any of these problems, from how to eat more healthily to climate change, require people to work together across disciplines, sectors, and geographies. However, traditional graduate education doesn't give students many opportunities to put their work in a larger context and collaborate with people outside of their fields. We started ELISS to help address that need." 

Efforts to improve food nutrition in schools can have unforeseen side effects, Chrisinger noted. As schools have tried to offer healthier choices in vending machine and cafeterias, he said, students have developed their own black market in less healthy alternatives.  "Kids go to the corner store," he said, to buy snacks and then peddle them to their classmates back at school.

Jonathan Kershaw, a graduate student in food science at Purdue University, also talked about the unintended consequences of food policies. "Some people, frankly, don't want to be told" what is good for them, Kershaw said. "Information may play a role, but probably a smaller role than the whole sea of influences on food choices." While most people may want to eat healthier foods, he said, there are many other factors — including price, values, and culture — that come into play.

D.C. stakeholders at the event echoed the ELISS fellows' findings. The federal government has been pursuing healthier choices in school cafeterias as part of the first lady's childhood nutrition efforts. But Janis Johnston of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service said there has been considerable pushback by food vendors who say they can't meet the nutrition standards and some school personnel who say they don't have adequate kitchen facilities to prepare healthier, non-processed foods. They also note that children often complain about the healthier alternatives. There have been moves in Congress to stall or overturn the nutrition initiative.

 

Johannes Eichstaedt | AAAS/Earl Lane

Johnston praised the ELISS program, saying it is important to get scientists involved early in their careers in cooperative efforts across disciplines. "I think this is a great way to start a conversation and to actually start looking for change," she said, and the program also brings new faces into the network of specialists dealing with nutrition and health.

The students who studied the social stigma that often surrounds mental health treatment grappled with issues of financing and access to services. Johannes Eichstaedt, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, urged novel approaches to free up therapists and psychiatrists to devote more time to the patients who urgently need their care. He noted a program by the National Health Service in Britain to provide a computerized training program in cognitive behavioral therapy that helps people better understand and guide their emotional state through mild to moderate problems related to stress, insomnia, and depression.

Shane Christensen | AAAS/Earl Lane

Shane Christensen, a program director at the University of Arizona's National Institute for Civil Discourse, said he was impressed by the ELISS program. "It is just wonderful to have smart, committed young people engaged in helping to further de-stigmatize mental health issues and draw out people's stories and help them know they are not alone," Christensen said.  In response to President Barack Obama's call for a national dialogue on mental health, Christiansen's organization and other groups, working in concert with the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, have been hosting conversations in more than 200 U.S. communities on improving understanding of mental health issues.

AbdulRasheed Alabi (above) and Cyan James | AAAS/Earl Lane

AbdulRasheed Alabi, who is pursuing an MD and Ph.D. in neuroscience at Stanford University, said the ELISS process has been a useful experience. "It's fun to get different perspectives" on tough societal issues, he said.  While the team members worked on projects that they may not pursue for the rest of their professional careers, he said, they are developing skills — thinking through possible interventions, analyzing pitfalls, building networks of stakeholders to draw upon for expertise and opinions — that will serve them well in the future. He said the team members are learning to tackle problems "in a way that you can actually do something significant." As Cyan James, who just completed a Ph.D. in public health genetics at the University of Washington put it, the process should involve "listening to problems first instead of rushing to solutions."

With a successful pilot year under its belt, Roberts said, ELISS will be inviting additional campuses to become campus partners. Graduate and professional students can win an invitation for their campuses by signing online. Already, more than 2,500 students from 75 universities have participated, she said.

ELISS sponsors for the Washington briefing include the Argosy Foundation, the Rita Allen Foundation, Gilbert Omenn & Martha Darling, and campus partners.