I was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, at a time when black Americans in southern states like Maryland went to racially segregated schools. Segregation was surely the most dominant social factor shaping my early childhood, having affected the life choices and chances of my parents, my family, and our entire networks. The fortunate aspects for me were that in my segregated public school I had top notch black educators who really cared about us and instilled a sense that we could be high achievers, and had an obligation to be exemplars – to show that we could compete and excel in the larger society. Food and nutrition were not yet in the picture – not, that is, academically.
Moving to integrated schools and into the big wide world took me to Syracuse University in upstate New York for college, with a major in psychology and minor in sociology, but really a major in the civil rights movement, because the time was 1961 to 1965. It was a bit hard to focus on things inside the classroom, but I made it through, went to New York City and took a job as a social caseworker in order to try to help people, which morphed to jobs in various health areas such as family planning and addiction treatment. A Masters in social work did not decrease my then high level of frustration at how little I could really help.
When by chance I found myself in Ithaca, also in upstate New York, I discovered that studying and working in nutrition was perhaps a more concrete and certain way to help people. Daphne Roe, who became my advocate (I needed one considering that my background was social work rather than biochemistry or anything with any nutrient density to it) and dissertation advisor in the nutrition programme at Cornell was a great model, with her UK-framed perspective on public health nutrition.
I pursued studies on salt and hypertension, which plunged me immediately into public health policy issues because we knew even then (in the mid 1970s) that dietary salt reduction was warranted. I figured out that there was such a thing as epidemiology, and then met Jean-Pierre Habicht who began to talk to me about two-by-two tables. I stayed on the Cornell faculty to teach community nutrition, but my appetite for public health ultimately led me to leave idyllic Ithaca for Baltimore to study public health at Johns Hopkins (choosing that location was not entirely a coincidence given family there).
The circle began to take me back to wanting to help people, now by directly studying things of a social, cultural, and political nature. I stayed on the Hopkins faculty in epidemiology, was pulled into the (re) discovery of health disparities, and drew on my personal experiences of how injustice could lead to poor health. Discovered that obesity was a particular issue for black women and became a so-called expert on that topic – this was before the general obesity epidemic. Mostly I was considered a cardiovascular epidemiologist or nutritional epidemiologist.
My current work is completely dominated by the obesity epidemic, although that is a good thing if the focus and energy associated with my efforts actually lead to positive change. My two main platforms have been the International Obesity Task Force, courtesy of Association Council member Philip James, and an organisation that I founded in 2002 – the African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network (www.aacorn.org).
The reason for starting the network will be obvious. In 2010 obesity is more common in black women (compared with US white women and also with black men even given the high rates of obesity in US people overall), as it was in 1984 when I discovered this. But it is now also more common in black than white girls, which is a recent phenomenon. So I formed the network because I thought that a little help from and for my friends could accelerate progress, and my friends could become each others’ friends, and so forth. At this writing, given what we now know about the political, social and cultural aspects of food, and the need for a major focus on public health and policy to reverse the epidemic, I am completely at home in this world of endeavour, and like to think that this is also a network to which I belong.
Professor of epidemiology in the department of biostatistics and epidemiology and the department of pediatrics (gastroenterology, nutrition section) at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philaldelphia; Also at Penn: Associate Dean for health promotion and disease prevention in the School of Medicine; senior scholar in the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics; senior Fellow in the Center for Public Health Initiatives, the Leonard Davis Institute for Health Economics, and the Institute on Aging; and faculty fellow in the Penn Institute for Urban Research. Degrees include MSc in social work from Columbia University, PhD in human nutrition from Cornell, and MPH from Johns Hopkins. Have held faculty positions at Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Penn State University, the University of Illinois at Chicago (where I was head of the nutrition department for three years), and Penn, where I have been since 1999.
Author of numerous research articles, reviews, and book chapters related to the themes in my work. Member of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and service on several IOM committees related to obesity or women’s health. Member of the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research panels responsible for the 2007 and 2009 cancer prevention reports. Lead editor, with Ross Brownson, of the Handbook of Obesity Prevention (2007), a primarily US focused text on understanding the landscape for obesity prevention and considering interventions across life stages and in various settings. Lead editor of a 2010 IOM report, Bridging the Evidence Gap in Obesity Prevention: A Framework to Inform Decision Making. This urges policy makers and researchers to consider obesity from a systems perspective and take a broad and transdisciplinary view of what constitutes evidence and how to generate it. Extensive service on expert panels in the US and global nutrition spheres. These have included being vice-chair of the WHO/FAO panel responsible for the 2003 ‘916’ report on Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases.