Foster’s Daily Democrat reported applications are available for the 2014 Master Gardener volunteer training with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in York County. From January to June, participants will receive more than 66 hours of in-depth horticultural training. The winter program’s focus will be on growing fruits and vegetables.
Archive for the ‘York County’ Category
Six students from the University of Maine’s College of Engineering have been awarded Center for Undergraduate Research Fellowships for 2012-13.
The fellowships were developed to enhance and increase undergraduate student involvement in faculty-supervised research, and are supported through a PRE-VUE grant awarded by the University of Maine’s President’s Office. Each fellowship provides a $1,000 award for the student, and up to $1,000 in more funding, if needed, to cover costs associated with the project.
The students’ research areas involve a variety of engineering topics — from studying extreme rainfall and climate change to optimizing power conversion for wave energy converter systems.
Graphene potential: A sophomore in engineering physics with a concentration in electrical and computer engineering, Beauchemin is researching a graphene-based electrochemical sensor. Her research focuses on graphene’s electrical characterization and its potential for use in single-molecule sensors. Graphene is a single-layer graphite — a hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms — and has properties of high conductivity and strength that give it potential in the area of electronics. Beauchemin has produced graphene, and hopes to identify it optically and electrically. She plans to test its possibility as a sensor for nanopore DNA encoding research by her adviser, electrical and computer engineering professor Rosemary Smith.
Building skills: Beauchemin says the fellowship has given her the opportunity to work in a lab with faculty she admires, and has helped strengthen her research and laboratory skills. “I work in the Laboratory for Surface Science and Technology (LASST) in Barrows, and there is a lot of intimidating equipment there, but Dr. Smith has been there to answer all my questions and assist me when needed,” Beauchemin says. “There are times at which I feel less experienced than the graduate students I work with, but I feel lucky to begin building my skills as an undergrad, so when I go to grad school, I will be well-prepared for research.”
Engineering Expo: Beauchemin, from Saco, Maine, cites UMaine’s annual Engineering Expo in Gorham and Orono as the springboards for deciding to study engineering at UMaine. “It is a great display of the diversity of programs at the school and is a great way to get children interested in science and engineering,” she says. “I have always loved math and science, and engineering is a great way to apply my interests.”
Future plans: Graduate school for electrical engineering is in sight for Beauchemin, who is interested in solid state physics and semiconductors. She hopes to work in the field of semiconductors.
Extreme rainfall: A sophomore in civil and environmental engineering, Dandy is working on climate change adaptation for his research project, “Extreme Rainfall in a Changing Climate: Developing New Methodologies to Inform Infrastructure Design.” He is analyzing past extreme precipitation and hurricane data for the East Coast, and is writing computer programs to help predict future extreme flood events to inform better infrastructure design. ~
Challenging himself: The Los Angeles, Calif., native chose engineering because he has always excelled at math and likes a challenge. “I enjoy challenging myself with course material that interests me,” says Dandy, noting that he chose UMaine for its reputation as an engineering school.
Pursuing research: Dandy says the fellowship gives him the opportunity to pursue research in the field that he finds most interesting. “It is very interesting to observe the entire process involved, and see everyone’s input toward a project,” says Dandy, who works with civil and environmental engineering professor Shaleen Jain. Dandy has presented his research at the National Council for Undergraduate Research Conference in LaCrosse, Wis., and published a research article.
Graduate school: Dandy plans to study water resource engineering or hydrology in graduate school.
Genetic sequencing: A sophomore in electrical and computer engineering and a student in the Honors College, Nolan has been working on a nanopore gene sequencing project in the Microinstruments and Systems Laboratory. “Our objective is to translocate single-stranded DNA through a nanopore and electrically identify individual nucleotides as they pass through,” Nolan says. “If we could fine-tune the process well enough, it has potential to replace traditional methods of genetic sequencing, as it is a faster and cheaper alternative to current commercial approaches.” Nolan says the bulk of his research has been in “optimizing the recipe we use to make the carbon nanoelectrodes for our electrical measurements.”
Invaluable asset: Nolan, from Camden, Maine, says he did not imagine that he would have this kind of opportunity to do research as an undergraduate. “I was excited to earn a lab position here at the university, pleased with the cutting-edge facilities and meaningful projects, and thrilled to subsequently receive a research fellowship,” he says. “It has been an invaluable asset to my research, and I greatly appreciate the opportunity.” He says research has been “an enjoyable, meaningful way to work during the summer and supplement coursework during the academic year.”
Combining strengths: When deciding where to attend college, Nolan knew he wanted a school with a solid curriculum and scholarship opportunities. “With UMaine’s renowned engineering program, merit scholarships and research positions, it offers a great balance between quality education, professional opportunity and affordability,” Nolan says. He views engineering as a chance to learn interesting, dynamic material while combining his strengths. “It is a discipline where I can combine my natural creativity with my knack for science and mathematics, and the way engineering continues to be shaped by — and to evolve with — the modern world, ensures that it stays relevant and integral to our society,” he says.
Role models: Nolan says his research would not have been possible without the guidance of Institute for Molecular Biophysics research engineer Justin Millis and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Rosemary Smith. “Justin has shown me the ropes in the clean room and consistently provided great project advice,” Nolan says. “Rosemary always manages to find the time and the patience, despite her busy schedule, to sit down with me and explain the answers to all of my questions.”
Continuing education: Nolan says he plans to attend graduate school after completing his undergraduate studies. “I strive to become the best engineer I can be, and after graduate school will probably look to move into industry,” he says. Nolan says he is interested by both the electrical and computer aspects of his major, but sees himself leaning toward computer engineering.
Power conversion: A senior in electrical engineering, Nuzzo is working on optimizing power conversion for wave energy converter (WEC) systems. He has been designing printed circuit boards that will be used with a mechanical prototype WEC designed by the Mechanical Engineering Department. Nuzzo’s work, which involves converting DC power to AC power using an inverter he designed, will help convert power produced by WEC, as well as control it to optimize system performance. The research is an example of multiple departments at UMaine working together to find new methods for harnessing renewable energy resources, Nuzzo says.
Practical experience: The fellowship has helped Nuzzo gain practical experience in the power electronics field. The Litchfield, Maine, native says, through the fellowship, he has developed significant skills in printed circuit board design that are essential for his engineering work.
Early fascination: Nuzzo says he chose to study engineering because he has always been interested in building. “I’ve known since I was young that I wanted to study electrical engineering because it would allow me to understand how all my toys — that I took apart — worked,” Nuzzo says. He has since become interested in renewable energy and he sees electrical engineering as a key to innovation in that area. He chose to study at UMaine because of its “well-regarded engineering program and its financial benefits for Maine residents.”
Difficult but rewarding: Nuzzo, who has been working with electrical and computer engineering professor Nathan Weise, says research as an undergraduate is a fun, different type of work than what you do in the classroom. “Working on research between classes can be difficult but also rewarding,” Nuzzo says. “I enjoyed working closely with my professor and learning the tricks of the trade rather than working problems from a book.”
Working in the field: After graduation, Nuzzo says he will be working full time at Pika Energy, a start-up company in Gorham, Maine, where he interned last summer and learned about inverter design.
Improving usability: Osti, a junior in computer engineering from Kathmandu, Nepal, is researching alternative ways to interact with visualizations walls. Visualization walls are made up of many monitors that act as a single monitor and are usually used to display scientific data. Osti’s research mainly involves using Microsoft’s Kinect to find alternative input devices in place of a mouse or keyboard. “Since the total screen size of visualization walls is big, using a keyboard or mouse would mean that the user would have to stay close to the screen and would not be able to see much because of the size of the wall,” Osti says. “This creates a need for a different kind of input device that allows users to easily navigate the huge screen as would a mouse in a single-monitor screen.” Osti says the plan is to build a wireless device for users to navigate the walls.
Solving problems: Osti says he has long been interested in computer programming and creating things to solve problems. He transferred to UMaine from a Tennessee school during his first year because of the College of Engineering’s well-known academic programs. “I felt that I would get more opportunities and greater exposure here,” Osti says.
Valuable experience: Osti, who has been working with electrical and computer engineering professor Bruce Segee, says the fellowship has allowed him to learn a lot beyond the classroom through research as an undergraduate.
Implementing knowledge: Osti is undecided about his plans after graduation. “I would love to work on something interdisciplinary that requires implementing my knowledge of engineering in a different field like medicine or chemistry,” he says.
Detecting explosives: A junior in electrical engineering from Nashua, N.H., Pugliano is researching the optimization of a lateral field excited (LFE) sensor that she hopes will be able to detect peroxide-based explosives. “An LFE sensor is basically a wafer of AT-cut quartz crystal with electrodes deposited on one side, leaving the other side of the crystal bare,” she says. “The electrodes excite the crystal’s transverse shear mode with an electric field. Using equipment like a network analyzer, the crystal’s response can be measured. The response can be affected by the environment, such as gases and liquids that come in contact with the bare surface. This indicates that the LFE device may be sensitive enough to detect the gases emitted by dangerous chemicals.” Pugliano also is working to find a new method for measuring the LFE device’s response.
Strength to persevere: “The fellowship means that other people believe in me and my research, which is encouraging,” she says. “While research can be exciting, it can also be frustrating. When I am frustrated, I remember that there are other people who have faith in me, and it gives me strength to persevere.”
No place like UMaine: The Electrical and Computer Engineering Department is what drew Pugliano. “I visited several places and none of them really compared to UMaine,” she says. “UMaine has a lot of great opportunities, a beautiful campus and an impressive College of Engineering.”
Real-world applications: Pugliano chose engineering because it’s a challenging yet rewarding field that gives her the opportunity to solve real problems and improve the lives of others. “Also, I can’t say no to those big engineering paychecks,” she says, adding that undergraduate research “isn’t just about getting paid, it’s about applying knowledge from the classroom to real-world problems.”
Helping hand: Pugliano has been working closely with her adviser, electrical and computer engineering professor John Vetelino. “I started doing research for him in summer 2012 in the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF-REU) program,” she says. “Dr. Vetelino has been a wonderful adviser and has given me many opportunities.”
Teaching others: After graduation, Pugliano plans to gain experience by working with companies before returning to school to obtain her doctorate in electrical engineering. Her long-term goal is to become a professor.
The Weekly Observer, serving Sanford, Springvale, Acton and Lebanon, previewed a five-week introductory beekeeping course that will start Oct. 15 in Springvale. The York County Beginner Bee School is co-sponsored by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Maine State Beekeepers Association.
Kimberly Dao is diligent about sleeping eight or nine hours of each night.
The University of Maine biology major, who will be a senior this fall, knows sufficient shut-eye is important for memory, health, mood and energy level.
It’s also a time to dream.
And Dao, who was accepted at the end of her sophomore year into the Maine Track Early Assurance program of Tufts University School of Medicine, has a long list of goals to accomplish when she’s awake.
Dao, who is from Saco, Maine, is the 11th UMaine scholar accepted into the Maine Track program. She’ll enter Tufts Medical School in fall 2014, several months after she becomes part of the first generation of college graduates in her family.
As a junior, Dao was UMaine student body president and Class of 2014 president. She earned a 3.97 grade-point average in the fall 2012 semester. Earning a 4.0 semester GPA is still on her bucket list.
So too is carving out more time to paint, attend concerts and improvisation shows, and become a better ukulele player. Dao’s days are packed and that’s the way she likes them.
In addition to pre-med classes that start at 8 a.m., labs, government meetings and office hours, she routinely works out at New Balance Recreation Center, plays on a club field hockey team, bicycles, cooks and participates in the Black Bear Mentors Program at Old Town Recreation.
The multitasker often studies while she eats. And she beams when she talks in rapid-fire fashion about the fun she is having, and her goals and plans for the future.
In a January meeting with her adviser, Farahad Dastoor, Dao, who speaks English and Vietnamese, says she wants to learn a third language, possibly French or Spanish.
Dastoor, a lecturer in the School of Biology and Ecology, describes Dao as a modest, genuine, focused, purposeful leader. And organized. “She has amazing time-management skills,” he says.
While achieving excellence appears effortless for the self-described eccentric, Dao says academics weren’t always easy. She says things started to click in school after she fell off a roof as a youngster and had staples put in her head.
“Looking back, that’s when my grades improved,” she laughs.
In 2010, Dao was a top 10 graduate at Thornton Academy, where she also excelled in a slew of sports, clubs and activities.
Dao plans to eventually practice family medicine in Maine, where her parents chose to settle after living in California, Virginia and New Hampshire.
Family medicine, Dao says, combines her love of healing and helping with the ability to have long-term physician-patient relationships.
At an early age, Dao was captivated by medical procedures. She says she was engrossed watching surgeries on medical shows while her peers were mostly just grossed out.
Bonding with others is also important to Dao. In middle school, she volunteered with Special Olympics and at a local nursing home.
Dao says she knew her interest in medicine was a true calling when she got a taste of clinical experience in the emergency room at Southern Maine Medical Center in Biddeford and when she aided a UMaine friend having a diabetic seizure.
“His roommate pounded on my door,” she recalls.
Dao, who had already become a Certified Nursing Assistant at Biddeford Regional Center of Technology while she was in high school, took charge and injected her friend with glucagon.
She says she felt a surge of excitement and purpose handling the situation and thought, “This is what I’m meant to do.”
Dao will be able to fulfill her calling through the Maine Track curriculum.
Maine Medical Center in Portland partners with Tufts University Medical School to offer the unique program.
Maine Track Early Assurance annually reserves a limited number of seats for sophomores from University of Maine System institutions, Bowdoin, Bates and Colby. The program was established in 2008 — students were first admitted in 2009 — with the hope that a significant number of graduates would go on to practice medicine in Maine.
Dao will attend the bulk of her first two years of instruction at TUSM in Boston. For her third-year clerkship and some of her fourth-year rotations, she’ll gain clinical experience in rural practice, as well as training at a major tertiary medical center in Maine.
Dao says she’s excited about practicing medicine in Maine, and is looking forward to a world of opportunities, including travel.
“I’m interested in a lot of things,” she says. “I appreciate the little things. If I’m ever sad, I give myself five minutes to complain, then I go do something fun.”
In her quest to experience as much as possible, Dao utilizes weekends and vacations to read and study.
And summers. From June to August, Dao expected to take part in Semester at Sea, a study-abroad program sponsored by the University of Virginia. She’ll board the MV Explorer, a 24-000-ton “floating university” in London, England and learn about comparative civilizations while traveling to Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Malta, France, Spain and Portugal before returning to London.
She credits her parents’ work ethic and sacrifice with inspiring her to dream big and make the most of experiences.
Dao appreciates that her parents, Kevin and Mai, toiled six days a week at their small business to support her and her siblings. “My parents worked so hard,” she says. “I recognize I have a great opportunity.”
The George Mitchell Scholar also is grateful that others have financially supported her academic efforts, including her scholarship’s namesake, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.
“He’s my role model,” Dao says of the Waterville, Maine native and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. “He is the epitome of the American dream. His support and support of others like him, is why I am here. And I love this place (UMaine). I’m excited to be here.”
One of her goals as student body president is to bring to students’ attention the incredible and varied resources, organizations and opportunities that exist on campus.
And she looks forward in the near future to being able to give a financial boost to other aspiring students.
“I’ll be able to help someone else and help their dreams comes true,” she says. “That’s a big deal to me.”
The National Institutes of Health has awarded $380,000 to researchers at the University of Maine Center on Aging, University of New England (UNE) and The Iris Network to study a falls prevention program for older citizens with vision impairment. Falls among older adults can lead to serious injury, loss of independence or death. The two-year project aims to inform community programs how to provide the best falls prevention information for older citizens.
The study will focus on the effectiveness of the UNECOM Balancing Act Program, a self-initiated falls prevention program that aims to improve balance and reduce falls. The program, designed at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine Department of Geriatric Medicine, requires only one training session and can then be done at home with no equipment or further instruction.
“In Maine and throughout the country, aging services are shifting toward community and in-home interventions allowing older adults to age in their homes and communities,” Jennifer Crittenden, fiscal and administrative officer of the UMaine Center on Aging, says.
Among the 65 and older population, 30 to 40 percent experience a fall, with vision-impaired seniors nearly twice as likely to fall, according to information from The Iris Network, an organization that provides services statewide to Maine people living with blindness and visual impairment.
“Accidental falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries for those 65 years of age and older,” said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, the ranking member on the Senate Special Committee on Aging. “This grant will contribute to the important work being done at UMaine’s Center on Aging and help raise awareness and prevent life-threatening falls in the older adult population.”
Through a randomized controlled trial, researchers will be able to test the effectiveness of the UNECOM Balancing Act curriculum among seniors with visual impairment. The study will also examine the program’s potential for adoption by community-based programs such as Maine Area Agencies on Aging as a convenient, home-based plan that is user-friendly and accessible to older adults living in rural areas.
“These funds are welcome news for medical researchers throughout the state as well as those suffering from vision impairment,” U.S. Sen. Angus King said. “The UNECOM Balancing Act Program has the potential to help our elderly population live more safely in their homes and communities. This is especially important in a rural state like Maine, where easy and immediate access to medical facilities and treatment is often dependent upon location.”
Co-principal investigators for the study are Lenard Kaye, director of the UMaine Center on Aging and professor in the UMaine School of Social Work, and Marilyn Gugliucci, director of geriatrics education and research at the UNE College of Osteopathic Medicine.
“The UNECOM Balancing Act Program was designed specifically for community dwelling older adults,” Gugliucci says. “Maine’s rurality makes it difficult for older adults to get to group programs, so having an opportunity to work on falls prevention in the home is quite important. To have the opportunity to adapt the Balancing Act Program for older adults with visual impairment will aid even more Mainers who want to maintain their independence.”
Subjects will be recruited from clientele of The Iris Network in York and Cumberland counties who are age 62 and older and who meet additional eligibility requirements. Participants will be randomized into control and treatment groups and will take part in a series of assessments that will help researchers understand the differences in outcomes between groups.
“Maine is often referred to as the oldest state in the nation. This grant will give us the opportunity to get out in front of a growing need in our elderly population, for whom a fall often signals the end to independent living,” Ruth Mlotek, director of vision rehabilitation services at The Iris Network, says.
The primary outcome measures of the study will be participant balance and frequency of falls. However, several other factors will also be measured, including pain, physical activity, fear of falling, perceived difficulty in performing the exercises, ability, motivation and predisposing factors for falls.
An additional aim of the study will be to determine if developing social networks will encourage participants to stick with the balancing exercises.
Research findings and the UNECOM Balancing Act Program will be disseminated among human service organizations through networks such as the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the Maine Gerontological Society.
Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747
Maine and New Hampshire’s coastal tourism and shellfish industries contribute millions of dollars annually to the regional economy. In Maine in 2010, coastal tourism and recreation added $1.1 billion to Maine’s gross domestic product, while shellfish landings in that same year generated revenues of $347 million. But these industries and the coastal environment they depend on are vulnerable to a variety of factors, including pollution, climate change and invasive species.
A team of researchers led by the University of Maine and the University of New Hampshire will conduct a three-year study of the many factors affecting the health of their shared coastal ecosystem. This collaboration, funded by a $6 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), aims to strengthen the scientific basis for decision making related to the management of recreational beaches and shellfish harvesting. This research is a direct outgrowth of Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative, supported by the NSF EPSCoR program.
The project, titled the New England SusTainability Consortium (NEST), is managed by the EPSCoR programs at UMaine and UNH in partnership with College of the Atlantic, University of New England, University of Southern Maine, Great Bay Community College, Plymouth State University and Keene State College. In Maine, researchers will also collaborate with several state agencies and other stakeholders, including the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Maine Department of Marine Resources, Maine State Department of Education and Maine Healthy Beaches.
“I am delighted that the National Science Foundation selected the New England SusTainability Consortium, for this Research Infrastructure Improvement grant,” said Sen. Susan Collins. “Through both tourism as well as commercial fishing, our state’s economy is highly dependent on the ecological well-being of the Gulf of Maine. This grant will help fund the vital research performed by faculty and students at the University of Maine as they seek to find ways to reduce pollution caused by coastal runoff and assist local governments in making informed decisions regarding the closure of beaches and shellfish beds.”
“This is good news for Maine, and indeed for all coastal areas,” said Sen. Angus King. “Our shellfish industry is facing many threats an climate change, warming oceans, acidifying waters, and an increase in green crabs, which are decimating clam flats. Our state simply can’t lose another fishery. I look forward to seeing the results of the good work that this grant will enable, like hopefully more targeted closures of flats. Our changing environment is a big problem, and while we work out broad solutions, we must also focus on mitigating the direct impacts on people and ecosystems.”
UMaine President Paul W. Ferguson affirmed the project’s importance, stating, “This NSF grant recognizes the leadership and contribution of University of Maine scholars who aim to support coastal ecosystems, economies, and communities by promoting sustainable policies and practices in Maine.”
The project combines scientific knowledge and local expertise to improve resource management decisions. There is widespread agreement among resource managers and scientists in both states that current beach and shellfish management decisions are challenging and can be improved by strengthening partnerships among scientists, managers and communities.
NEST uses a collaborative process where resource managers and other stakeholders participate in defining problems, identifying research needs, interpreting results and designing solutions. The team will select a number of study sites in each state to investigate how natural processes like water flow in rivers, and human activities like land development, in coastal watersheds influence bacterial dynamics. Project research will advance understanding of how environmental and climatic conditions affect the dynamics of bacterial pathogens. The project studies how human activities contribute to and are affected by these bacterial dynamics and related public resource management decisions. Coupling these distinct strands of research offers a more comprehensive view of beach and shellfish management. This innovative approach seeks to generate cost-effective strategies for reducing bacterial pollution. By identifying solutions that strategically avert risks to humans, while supporting economic development and ecosystem health, NEST will develop regional capacity between Maine and New Hampshire to advance sustainability solutions through science.
Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative (SSI) is supported in large part by a $20 million, five-year investment through the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (NSF EPSCoR Program). SSI enhances Maine’s research capacity and promotes innovation and societal benefit through the field of sustainability science. This innovative initiative represents an extensive network of over 350 researchers and students and more than 200 community-based stakeholders working together to advance solutions across Maine.
Contact: Andrea Littlefield, 207.581.2289
Last summer’s ocean heat wave has provided researchers from the University of Maine and Gulf of Maine Research Institute with unique insights into how fishery managers and policymakers might best sustain marine ecosystems in the face of climate change.
The study found the abnormal water temperatures, which were 3 degrees to 5 degrees above the long-term average, caused some species to move north and seek refuge in cooler waters, and others to migrate earlier than usual. These behavioral changes had substantial ramifications for commercial fishermen, affecting both the species variety and the selling price of their catch.
“Longfin squid, which are generally found off the shores of Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey, made their way to the Maine coast,” said Katherine Mills, one of the scientists who published the findings in the June issue of Oceanography. “Local fishermen quickly took advantage of the catch, and new local markets for the squid developed.”
The warmer temperatures also caused Gulf of Maine lobsters to molt about a month earlier than usual, bringing an early start to the summer harvest. While lobstermen proceeded to catch a record number of these crustaceans, the abundance flooded the market and caused the price of lobsters to plummet.
“In order to sustain marine ecosystems, scientists and fishery managers also need to be able to rapidly adjust in response to abrupt changes in climate,” Mills said. “In the paper, we outline a number of recommendations to help them prepare for and react to events like the 2012 ocean heat wave.”
The researchers advocate for development of climate-ecosystem models that link physical changes to biological outcomes and economic impacts. These models would help fishery managers identify and evaluate climate change adaptation strategies.
In addition, they assert that targeted predictive models that take into account multiple real-time data streams would be valuable for supporting fishery management decisions in the era of climate change.
They also state that fishery management processes may need greater flexibility to accommodate and adjust to future climate events. One such example is a responsive permitting structure for commercial fishermen that may be helpful in case one species leaves the area and another species moves in.
Additional collaborators on this research included SUNY Stony Brook and NOAA, as well as researchers from France and Taiwan.
Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777
Five-State, Five-Year, $2.5 Million Study to Explore Cooking and Family Meals as Ways to Prevent Childhood ObesityMonday, July 1st, 2013
Researchers at the University of Maine are leading a five-state, five-year, $2.5 million USDA study to combat childhood obesity, and they are using an unlikely tool to do so — cooking.
The project, called iCook, is focused on improving culinary skills, promoting family meals and increasing physical activity.
The study, which is being conducted at the five land grant universities in Maine, Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia, is designed to test the effect of a two-year intervention on body mass index (BMI) of youth.
In Maine, a team of researchers, students and University of Maine Cooperative Extension faculty members are being led by Adrienne White, human nutrition professor, and Kate Yerxa, statewide educator for nutrition and physical activity.
“The long-range goals are for obesity prevention,” White says. “Maintaining weight within the normal percentile curves is what would be desired, as well as increasing culinary skills and eating together as a family.”
The American Medical Association recently announced it has adopted a new policy classifying obesity as a disease. Obesity affects 30 percent of American adults and has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Obese” and “overweight” are labels for ranges of weight greater than what is considered healthy for a given height and is determined by a person’s BMI, which correlates to their amount of body fat, the CDC says.
Recruitment for iCook participants is under way for children ages 9 and 10, and the adult responsible for preparing the majority of the children’s meals. Participants need to be free from food allergies, be willing to eat from all food groups, and have computer and Internet access at home. Each pair will be compensated $80 over the study period.
The goal of recruiters is to have 100 pairs participate in each state. The Maine researchers are offering the opportunity for pairs to participate in areas around Orono and Ellsworth through UMaine Extension youth programs.
Once participants are recruited, they will randomly be assigned to a control or treatment group. Half the participants will be in the treatment group and will attend six two-hour-long classes every other week for the first 12 weeks of the project and have access to the iCook website, a place to share and track progress, throughout the two-year period.
“All states are doing the same thing,” White says. “At the very same time; the very same measurements and the very same structure.”
Assessments are scheduled to begin July 29 and classes will start during the third week of August. The classes will include topics such as proper food handling and preparation, nutrition groups and structured mealtimes. Cooking and exercises will be done during classes. Extension nutrition staff, 4-H leaders and UMaine students will teach the Maine lessons.
The inspiration for iCook came from a similar project led by White called Maker of Meals that focused on adults who prepared meals for children in Washington County.
White, community partners led by Colin Windhorst and students, including Douglas Mathews, a human nutrition doctoral student from Sanford, Maine, conducted the pilot study that laid the groundwork for the USDA project.
Mathews, who is using iCook as the focus of his Ph.D. project on program evaluation, was part of the grant-writing process and now helps manage iCook across all five states. Mathews also worked with Rainstorm Consulting of Orono to create the iCook website which he describes as a “mashup of some of the more popular social media sites,” with sharing features similar to those on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.
The website is designed to create an online community connecting participants from the five states through blogging, chatting and sharing media. Researchers will monitor the children’s growth, development and health habits through website activity, online surveys and physical measurements.
Carolyn Stocker, a third-year food science and human nutrition major and member of the Honors College from Westfield, Mass., is one of the seven undergraduate students assisting White and Mathews as a student researcher on the study and is helping to recruit participants this summer.
“I hope this project accomplishes what it has set out to do, which is prevent childhood obesity,” Stocker says. “This project approaches it directly while emphasizing the importance of cooking, eating and exercising as a family.”
Stocker, who is looking forward to gaining field experience, says she believes iCook will also allow children and adults to feel more comfortable working with food and in the kitchen, and she hopes it will become a bonding experience for the families, strengthening relationships.
All participants — those in the control and treatment groups — will complete surveys and have physical measurements taken four times throughout the study. Measurements for the children include height, weight and waist circumference. Children and adults will have their blood pressure taken during the four screenings.
Meaghan Brown, a graduate student studying human nutrition from Vassalboro, Maine, is coordinating the study in Maine. Brown is responsible for managing the collection of data. She is also writing her master’s thesis on topics related to the project, such as family dynamics and quality of life.
Brown, who hopes to build relationships with her fellow researchers and program participants, would like iCook to leave a lasting impression on participants.
“I hope they continue what they learn outside the study,” Brown says. “It is important for parents and children to be physically active, eat well and spend time together.”
Study results will also be used in curriculum development that will be integrated into UMaine Extension youth programming. During the fourth year of the study, iCook will be tested for sustainability by its practicality in a nonresearch setting, White says.
“Ultimately we want this curriculum to not sit on a shelf,” White says, adding the community-participatory approach to the study should help increase the sustainability of the team’s work.
White wants participants to be able to go to the grocery store together, know how to make healthful selections and look forward to cooking and eating together. She believes these positive life changes could lead to healthier and happier lives.
“We hope people begin to cook more and eat together more and be more aware of their food,” White says. “We just want people to get back to loving food, understanding food and being able to work with food.”
White says culinary skills and eating together as a family are considered important aspects of following a nutritious diet. She says researchers have shown adolescents are less likely to engage in deviant behavior or to have eating disorders when their families eat together.
Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747