Health Studies Research

Research Labs

Health promotion and disease prevention programs focus on keeping people healthy through education and environmental changes that create a culture of health in communities where people live, work, learn, and worship. Health promotion programs aim to engage and empower individuals and communities to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

My research focuses on methods of behavior change to manage risk factors related to chronic disease. Grounded in the Social Ecological Model, my work occurs in a number of settings such as schools, corner stores, food pantries and examines different levels of influence that can improve the health and food environment, leading to improved health and weight status. I seek to address the needs of the individual and community within the social, economic, and cultural contexts where people live, work, learn, and worship.

Specifically, in the school setting, my research identifies effective strategies to address childhood obesity. My work aligns both health and education policies and programs to enable students to reach their full potential. Reliable evidence indicates that healthy students are better learners, and, consequently, good health is fundamental to ensuring an effective education especially in the most vulnerable neighborhoods.

Contact: Dr. Stacey Snelling, stacey@american.edu

Dr. Elizabeth Cotter is the Director of the Behavioral Health and Wellbeing Lab and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Studies at American University. The Behavioral Health and Wellbeing Lab's research is primarily focused on: 1) the prevention and treatment of eating and weight-related concerns; and 2) mindfulness-based approaches to improving health behaviors. The lab is currently conducting a study examining how mindfulness might influence impulsivity and cardiovascular outcomes in adolescents with severe obesity, in comparison to usual care. We are also conducting a nationwide study examining the antecedents and consequences of loss of control eating in young men through daily surveys.

Dr. Cotter and her research team are currently working on a grant project funded by Common Threads, a nonprofit organization focused on community-based cooking and nutrition programs. The purpose of this grant is to learn how families in Washington, DC think about healthy eating and to highlight the existing strengths and assets community members use to promote health. In order to accomplish this research, we will collaborate with community partners across DC to implement focus groups and key informant interviews with parents, children, teachers, and other key stakeholders across the Washington, DC, area.

Contact: Dr. Elizabeth Cotter, cotter@american.edu

The Lavender Lab is directed by Dr. Ethan Mereish. The Lavender Lab seeks to produce and disseminate knowledge to better understand and reduce sexual orientation, gender, and racial/ethnic disparities in health. The lab conducts NIH-funded research on the psychological, social, and cultural determinants of health for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals and racial/ethnic minorities. Members of marginalized or stigmatized groups frequently experience unique stressors associated with their identity, including real or perceived discrimination, harassment, violence, microaggressions, and internalized stigma. These types of stressors are often referred to as "minority stressors." LGBTQ youth and adults, for example, report poorer mental health and increased substance use compared to heterosexual and cisgender individuals. These disparities are often explained by minority stressors and stigma that LGBTQ people experience (e.g., heterosexism, biphobia, transphobia). As such, the Lavender Lab is particularly interested in individuals' experiences with minority stress and its effects on mental health and substance.

Members of marginalized or stigmatized groups frequently experience unique stressors associated with their identity, including real or perceived discrimination, harassment, violence, microaggressions, and internalized stigma. These types of stressors are often referred to as "minority stressors." LGBTQ youth and adults, for example, report poorer mental health and increased substance use compared to heterosexual and cisgender individuals. These disparities are often explained by minority stressors and stigma that LGBTQ people experience (e.g., heterosexism, biphobia, transphobia). As such, The Lavender Lab is particularly interested in individuals' experiences with minority stress and its effects on mental health and substance.
Lab Website

The Nutritional Neuroscience Lab is directed by Dr. Kathleen Holton. The focus of the lab is on understanding how dietary intake can impact neurological health. Nutrition is the basis of all human health, including the health of the brain, where diet can exert both positive and negative impacts. The Nutritional Neuroscience Lab examines how exposure to food additives can negatively impact brain function, and how certain nutrients in the diet can protect against these negative effects. We are especially interested in how exposure to dietary excitotoxins can lead to neurological symptoms, including pain, cognitive dysfunction, gastrointestinal disorders, memory loss, inattention, and centrally mediated fatigue.

The most common exposure to dietary excitotoxins comes from the use of free amino acids as food additives. The most well-known food additives in this class are monosodium glutamate (MSG) and aspartame (which is a dipeptide of phenylalanine and aspartate), though there are many others hidden under various names on food labels. Any food which contains free forms of glutamate or aspartate has the potential to elicit symptoms in sensitive individuals; however, there are also foods like soy sauce and parmesan cheese which naturally contain higher levels of these amino acids.

Our lab is currently working on multiple projects including a large DoD funded study examining the effect of dietary glutamate on the neurological symptoms experienced by Gulf War veterans, global health research looking at the effects of exposure to MSG on chronic widespread pain in Kenya, the effects of dietary exposures on attention and cognitive function in college students with ADHD, as well as some pilot research in collaboration with Children’s National Medical Center to examine the effects of dietary glutamate on childhood epilepsy.
Lab Website

Dr. Jessica L. Young is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Studies. Dr. Young’s research interests focus on health equity, public health policy, community development, and philanthropy. Dr. Young also serves as the Health Team Lead at the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at AU. In this role, she leads a research project on Black maternal health in Washington, DC, funded by the Consumer Health Foundation. Dr. Young is also completing a project examining relationships between county-level economic distress and population health behaviors and outcomes.

Contact: Dr. Jessica Young, jessica@american.edu

Research Notes