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Taking an Interdisciplinary Approach

Taking an Interdisciplinary Approach

Ten African-American scholars combine expertise to get at the root of obesity

For decades in the obesity research community, the name Dr. Shiriki K. Kumanyika has been virtually synonymous with culturally specific weight-control and dietary change research. But when she decided to take a more activist role in designing research to reduce the rates of obesity and its associated health risks in the Black community, she decided to get a little help from her friends.

That’s how Kumanyika, an epidemiology professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, came to convene AACORN — the African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network. All of the scholars tapped for AACORN are African American and female all are doctorate-holding; faculty members at U.S. universities or research institutions; and all are actively engaged in research with African-American populations.

“The women who are members of AACORN are people that I’ve worked with directly or have mentored in some way,” says Kumanyika who formed the group in 2002 with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity. While she admits that the all-female makeup of the group was a coincidence,

Kumanyika adds she wanted AACORN “to be a group that would bond and come up with a common mission and vision and be able to have a critical mass.” 

Expertise and interests within AACORN covers a broad spectrum of content areas, from community health, nutritional epidemiology and public health nutrition to dietetics, gender studies, exercise science and cardiovascular disease epidemiology and prevention.

AACORN clearly has the potential to allow its members to enhance their careers and expand research opportunities, but Kumanyika will serve as the conduit for requests for referrals or consultants that AACORN members receive.

She notes she is determined to protect their identities and serve as a buffer between the researchers and the onslaught of requests they would probably receive to serve as consultants on other people’s grants.

“There are very few African-American researchers working on obesity, and there seem to be relatively few Latino researchers,” says Kumanyika. “People keep coming back to me because I’m the only one they can find, (though) I give out Yvonne Bronner’s name (the director of the Public Health Program at Morgan State University), who has done some work in this area, too.”

The research the scholars are doing in nutrition, physical activity and obesity in the African-American community is not in competition with work at their respective institutions, Kumanyika points out. “Everything that they do, I try to make it have some academic capital for them back home at their institutions.”

While AACORN’s aim is to build a critical mass of African-American researchers in the field of obesity, the network is also reaching out to other scholars doing research in the African-American community. Kumanyika invited 40 to 50 scholars, from a variety of fields and backgrounds to attend the group’s second annual meeting in Atlanta, which this year was titled “Achieving Healthy Weight in African-American Communities.” 

“(We) took a very interdisciplinary look at weight issues in the Black community, which allowed us to bring together people from outside the box for obesity research,” says Kumanyika. “There were people from transcultural psychology, philosophy, literature.” 

For members of the network, it was an opportunity to “learn more about African-American communities and perspectives as a context for thinking about weight issues… Our aim is to generate a set of recommendations for how we can do research differently,” rather than simply studying “the problem.”

In addition to the two CDC-sponsored meetings under its belt, AACORN members stay connected by e-mail and with the help of monthly conference calls also hosted by the CDC. Once a more formal operational and funding base is in place, Kumanyika says the network will step up efforts to engage other established and interested scholars in training.

The AACORN model is one that Kumanyika would like to see replicated to benefit other African-American scholars.

Says Kumanyika: “All of our members are interested in how obesity and obesity-related research can be better formulated given that they have a Black experience and research training. This is what is unique about the AACORN model. Our model is a way of giving people a reference group.”

— B.D.H.

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