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A Family Study
This year, the Baileys and other parents were the subjects of a research project carried out by HSTA students across the state. Students surveyed their families—mostly parents, but also aunts, uncles, and grandparents—about their health, particularly obesity and diabetes.
Bob Branch, a pharmacologist at the University of Pittsburgh, organized the survey. In 2007, Ann Chester, director of HSTA, invited him to teach a week-long summer program on clinical trials to HSTA students, but he was worried about boring his teenage charges.
“I asked the kids, rather than just me telling you how to do things, would you like to do it yourself? The response was an enthusiastic ‘yes,’” he says. They designed the study together and, as in any serious clinical study, they got institutional review board approval from West Virginia University. Every student who administers the survey takes online training on research ethics. To date, hundreds of high schoolers, including the teens in Welch, have taken the surveys home.
The survey helps scientists learn about a particular slice of the state population, Branch says. “These are really the most rural communities, up the little valleys—some of the poorest of West Virginia,” he says. Among the people surveyed in an earlier year, half the adults were obese. Those results were published October 2009 in Clinical and Translational Science in an article by Branch and Chester about having adolescents carry out community research while inspiring them to go into science careers.
Interestingly, a statewide study, conducted at the same time by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that only 31 percent of West Virginia adults are obese. That suggests to Branch that HSTA, which is aimed at students who are low income, African American, or the first in their family to attend college, may be reaching a particularly unhealthy slice of the population.
The HSTA program has had great success inspiring high schoolers to go to college. While only 58 percent of high school graduates in West Virginia go to college, Chester says, 97 percent of HSTA students do—thanks in part to a state program that waives tuition and fees for students who finish the program. And more than half of HSTA students who graduate from college go into careers in health and science.
The Bishops and Branch hope it does even more: they’d like students all over West Virginia to carry home lessons about healthy eating and healthy living as a step toward improving the whole community’s health. “We’re trying to make a difference in their lives,” Lori Bishop says. “The way they eat and the way they look at food.”