Our Story/Elizabeth Adams

The mom-and-baby dynamic in the first few months after birth is crucial for a mother’s overall health and a baby’s development. This dynamic can impact infant behavior and a baby’s risk for obesity later in life.

One nutritional sciences doctoral student is at the forefront of this research, hoping to one day stop the often intergenerational transmission of obesity. And she’s relying on Penn State’s interdisciplinary training to help her get there.

Elizabeth Adams, a USDA Childhood Obesity Prevention Training Program Fellow in the Department of Nutritional Sciences (NUTR), is focused on promoting multi-disciplinary approaches to preventing childhood obesity, specifically in the first few years of life. She is looking at how maternal characteristics—stress levels, sleep, eating habits, and energy expenditure—relate to one another and affect maternal and infant health, both now and in the future.

In new mothers, for example, the baby’s sleep habits impact the mother’s sleep. This often-fragmented sleep schedule may in turn impact the mother's dietary choices and infant feeding practices.

“I want to be skilled in multiple components to make an impact on the obesity epidemic,” Adams said. “The solution to reducing obesity isn’t one simple answer. If we can understand how multiple components interact, we can better reduce obesity rates.”

More than 4,500 Penn State students are enrolled in the College of Health and Human Development (HHD) studying a wide-array of fields, each committed to the concept of improving the quality of life for others. Adams, who found a home in NUTR, is one of those HHD students, and this is her story.

Adams was awarded a Childhood Obesity Prevention Training Program seed grant to lead a one-year project that examines the effects of maternal-infant sleep and maternal stress on energy balance and parent feeding styles in postpartum mothers and their infants.

The project looks at how the unique challenges during the postpartum time period, such as fragmented sleep and high stress, impact postpartum weight retention, and infant rate of growth. Substantial postpartum weight retention places next-born children at increased risk for obesity while maternal behaviors and parenting practices influence infant early life exposure and growth trajectory.

Adams also participated in Penn State’s thirty-first Annual Graduate Exhibition last March, where her research on children and candy, snacks and meals, placed second in the health and life sciences category.

She is also a research assistant at the Center for Childhood Obesity and Research (CCOR) where she helps with various projects. One of her larger contributions at the center was her recruitment for the Girls’ NEEDS Project, a ten-year longitudinal study that followed girls from age 5 to 15. The project aimed to chart the development of the controls of food intake among girls, with particular attention to the onset of dieting during middle childhood and adolescence. Adams helped recruit 75 percent of the original 197 participants who had not been contacted since 2007 and 2008.

After completing her education, Adams hopes to one day go into academia to further her research and teach. She said Penn State has helped clear this path for her, and she is excited about what the future will bring.

“Working with co-investigators and their knowledge and expertise impresses and surprises me every day,” she said. “The opportunities at Penn State are phenomenal. I can’t wait to learn more. My time here has far exceeded my expectations in terms of the resources available and expert researchers.”

Adams received her bachelor of science and master of science degrees at University of Florida and University of Connecticut, respectively.

In addition to NUTR, there are a variety of areas for students to study within HHD through the Departments of Biobehavioral Health, Communication Sciences and Disorders, Health Policy and Administration, Human Development and Family Studies, Kinesiology, Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management, and the School of Hospitality Management.