September 19, 2011
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that about one-third of American adults are obese. Albion College junior Katie Pickworth hopes to use funding from the National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Scholarship Program to determine if there are psychological and neurological triggers that can be linked to the condition.
"The research is not going to be easy, but I think there are things going on in people’s brains that lead them to become overweight through excessive eating," Pickworth, a product of Columbus, Ohio, and the Columbus School for Girls, said. "People who have never been overweight don’t understand it is beyond an overweight individual to control how much they are eating."
Pickworth, one of 13 recipients of the NIH award, receives a scholarship and internship. In January, she will be matched with a mentor with whom she will work for 10-week periods over the next two summers, and for every year she receives the $20,000 scholarship Pickworth is obligated to work for the NIH for a year.
She noted that her interest in obesity stems from a family history of struggling with weight.
"We're proof that genetics are involved [in obesity] and it is difficult to grow up in a family like that," Pickworth said. "While my parents were great in encouraging me to accept myself, I know there are consequences to being overweight.
"It seemed odd to me that the body of research is genetics-based for the causes, or it is a post-obesity thing saying being obese is bad because it will cause diabetes, heart issues," she added. "There is almost no research that is specifically investigating what is causing obesity beyond the genetics and general eating too much."
Pickworth, who is already targeting medical school and doctoral research programs for her future, admitted psychological research of obesity is a challenge because it is difficult to study an individual before they become overweight. Her start in the literature review was David Kessler's book The End of Overeating. Kessler, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, notes that foods high in fat, salt and sugar alter the brain's chemistry in ways that compel people to overeat.
An Impressive Background in Research
While she has not done obesity research at Albion, Pickworth's résumé includes five presentations and she is working with psychological science professor Andrea Francis on a paper reporting the results of a cognitive psycholinguistic study as well as beginning to work with biology professor Bradley Rabquer on an immunology project.
With a background that included attending high school research camps, Pickworth was selected for Albion's student research partners program before she arrived on campus. The program pairs a student with a faculty mentor to work on a project related to the faculty member's research or creative area, and she spent her first year at Albion working with psychological science professor Andrew Christopher in his research of the relationship between conscientiousness and risk taking.
"I have been interested in research since high school, so this is something I've been setting myself up for," Pickworth said. "The student research partners program was a large part of the reason I selected Albion. Having a paid research position is pretty remarkable and it doesn't happen anywhere else. Dr. Christopher was a great mentor to me and I came into my own through my research with him. Since then the projects I've been involved with have come about from me approaching the professor and asking if they need help.
"Research isn't a chore or a job; it's something I want to do," she added.