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Researching the Eating Habits of Teens

July 27, 2009

From left, recent Cohoes High School graduate Nbyia Rasoully conducted research on adolescent diet and activity with School of Public Health Associate Professor Kirsten Davison.

Recent Cohoes High School graduate Nbyia Rasoully conducted research on adolescents and risk for obesity under the supervision of UAlbany School of Public Health Associate Professor Kirsten Davison. (Photo Mark Schmidt)

How many hours a day do adolescents:
1. watch TV
2. play videogames
3. play sports or engage in physical exercise
4. use the computer for non-academic activities

Working with Associate Professor Kirsten Davison of UAlbany's School of Public Health, a recent Cohoes High School graduate asked 200 of her schoolmates questions like these in confidence and found some links between increased physical activity and reduced risk for obesity.

Nbyia Rasoully also found that students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunches are at a higher risk for obesity. Rasoully took a closer look around the lunchroom and noticed that students who paid full price for lunch had a wider choice of healthy dietary options. They could buy a salad to go with their meal.

The cafeteria has since made positive changes, so that if students buy pizza every day for lunch, a piece of fruit is added to their tray. Rasoully's research project was a part of the Science Research Course at Cohoes High School, an outreach program of the University at Albany. Since Rasoully was interested in childhood obesity, she was matched with Dr. Davison, an expert in promoting healthy lifestyles for families.

"At first I had no idea how to do research," said Rasoully. "It has been three years now, and I am more prepared for college because of the Science Research Program that was offered at my school. I have learned so much from Dr. Davison, and my teacher Dr. Isles has supported me from the start. I don't think I would have made it this far without them." Biology teacher Cheryl Isles oversees the course at Cohoes High School.

"Nbyia really impressed me," said Davison, who assisted her in designing a scientifically sound questionnaire so the results could be compared with national studies. "From the beginning, although Nbyia was only 16, the quality of her work was equivalent to that of a graduate student. I was very impressed with her natural curiosity and her ability to grasp complex information quickly."

In addition to having a direct effect on the options offered in the lunchroom, Rasoully entered her project in the Young Epidemiologist Scholarship (YES) Competition, a national competition to produce original student research. She practiced her presentation in front of Davison, and competed in Washington, D.C., where she won a $2,000 scholarship and a place as a regional finalist.  The YES competition is sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is devoted to improving the health and health care of all Americans, and the College Board.  

Motivated is a good word to describe Rasoully, who spent the mornings of her senior year at St. Peter's Hospital on rotations through the New Visions Career Exploration: Health Careers program. There, she had the chance to witness open heart surgery, colonoscopies, C-sections, and other medical procedures that students don't have the chance to see until they are in medical school.

Her goal is to become a physician, and she is planning to study biomedical engineering at RPI in the fall.       

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