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Inside the mind of researcher Deborah John

Deborah-John-headerDeborah John works as an assistant professor of Public Health and Exercise and Sport Science in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. She also serves as an Extension Family and Community Health faculty member within the CPHHS’ Extension and Public Health Practice, and is a researcher within the Center for Healthy Aging Research. She began her career as a graduate assistant and later an instructor in the former Department of Exercise and Sport Science at Oregon State, and has worked as an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. She earned a master’s degree in Exercise Science from the University of West Florida and a PhD in Exercise Science/Psychology from Oregon State.


What made you decide to get into this field of study?

I spent more than 15 years as an exercise and fitness professional working with people of all ages and abilities to improve their health and fitness performance. I was intrigued with motivation – what factors motivated individuals to behave (or not) in health promoting ways. I found I spent most of my time ‘counseling’ people to start and maintain healthy lifestyle habits, like regular physical activity and healthy nutrition, and to stop engaging in behaviors that may be harmful and/or led to the development of chronic disease. When I decided, almost 20 years after completing my BS in Health and Physical Education, to earn a doctorate, I wanted to focus my studies on the psychological aspects of health and exercise behavior, which is what I did completing my PhD at Oregon State.”

Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?

Deborah-John-Synergies

Deborah John works as an assistant professor of Public Health and Exercise and Sport Science in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. She also serves as an Extension Family and Community Health faculty member within the CPHHS’ Extension and Public Health Practice, and is a researcher within the Center for Healthy Aging Research.

I was in my second year of my first faculty position at a small public university in rural New Hampshire when Katrina hit New Orleans, my home town, in Fall 2005. Nearly a year after the storm, I was visiting my mom who took me on a driving tour of the neighborhoods where I had grown up. There was nothing there – the playgrounds where we played, the sidewalks where we walked, the streets where we bicycled, the homes where we lived were gone. In every neighborhood, we encountered many people, younger and older, who had lost their ‘place,’ their community, and their sense of independence, life quality, health and well-being. I listened to their stories – I heard their voices. I was inspired to pursue my current research path using a community-based participatory research (CBPR) approach with a focus on health and place. Regardless of the issue, my research explores the interplay between attributes of people and place on population health across the lifespan for subgroups disproportionately affected by the behavioral context and built environment.”

What does your current research entail?

My current project, funded competitively through USDA’s AFRI Childhood Obesity Prevention Program, is aimed at preventing obesity among rural children, which tends to focus on health outcomes among younger people. I share the role of principle investigator and project director with my CPHHS colleague, Kathy Gunter. Our research aims to use a CBPR approach to model the environmental context that contributes to increased obesity risk among rural populations. In Oregon, we are testing our model, engaging rural families and communities in action research, and implementing community-determined changes to the community, school and family home nutrition and physical activity environments with a goal to prevent obesity among rural children. My role on the current project as well as general research interests are specific to working with people and partners in communities to study/change the context – the school, worksite, neighborhood and/or community conditions in which healthy habits are expected to be learned/developed and maintained from early childhood through later adult life.”

What sparked your interest in this topic?

With regard to healthy, active aging, in New Hampshire, a very rural place, I had the opportunity to participate with a community of ‘senior’ skiers across a season. Every Wednesday, I met different members of the group on the mountain to ski. I interviewed 30 active, older women and men who shared their stories about growing up and growing old ‘on the mountain.’ I learned from the people how their personal attributes – their values, expectancies, interests, attitudes, abilities and behaviors – were shaped by their experience of rural place, the mountain they called home, across various stages of their life. I also learned how the mountain was touched by these older residents who photomapped their engagement in environmental stewardship, nature conservancy, inclusive recreation and economic development. My research employs a CBPR approach applied within a people and places framework with the aim of engaging people in participatory processes that are grounded in their lived experience of place in order to generate and transfer knowledge about how attributes of people interact with attributes of place to inform health behaviors and health outcomes.”

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Deborah (left) teaching a three-day training on the CBPR research tools for Public Health Extension field educators.

How will this make a difference? What do you hope is the outcome of your research?

My vision, which I share with many others, and hope is knowledge generated from the perspectives of people who are often unheard, and that is personally, socially and geographically grounded, will help shape health actions at multiple levels, reduce disparities and result in policies that are holistic, sustainable and just. For our current project that translates into empowering and assisting rural communities, schools and families in creating and sustaining environments and policies that ensure all residents – children and their adult role models – have ample opportunity to develop and maintain healthy nutrition and activity habits within behavioral contexts that support energy balance, which will ultimately prevent and reduce overweight and obesity among rural populations.”

What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of this research?

“Working with communities and colleagues who share my commitment to health equity, to develop and disseminate an integrated set of participatory action research tools through which people can explore and map their lived experience of health and place, determine resources and readiness for change, communicate findings and set priorities for community-driven actions to improve community health is the most fascinating aspect of the research – and perhaps the most challenging.

In the field of exercise and sport science, we tend to focus on human outcomes and typically study factors influencing exercise behavior or resulting from exercise behavior. The emphasis is on getting individuals exercise adequately and regularly to promote health and prevent disease – a public health priority. Only for a little over a decade have we adopted a public health or upstream approach and emphasize changing the context (rather than changing individuals) to optimize the default conditions and assure that healthy choices are the easy choices for all individuals and groups of people. The emerging field of physical activity in public health is interdisciplinary, including scientists and practitioners from exercise science, health promotion and education, public health, physical education, community development, land use and transportation planning, recreation, gerontology and more.”

Are you working with anyone else in the CPPHS on this project?

I mentioned Kathy Gunter, my colleague and friend. Kathy and I were in our doctoral programs at the same time in exercise and sport science – she focused on physiology and I focused on psychology; we both had integrated minors that included public health. Now, our research interests and approaches complement each other – like yin and yang. Our team, which is and will be evolving over the grant cycle, includes CPHHS colleagues and students, both graduate and undergraduate, from nutrition, health behavior health promotion, exercise and sport science, epidemiology, Extension FCH on campus and off campus, as well as horticulture and anthropology.”

Why is research important in the field of exercise and sport science?

Exercise and sport science is a transdisciplinary field that includes biological, psychological and sociological sciences to link human biology and sedentary, physical activity, exercise and sport behaviors with individual and population health, well-being and performance. Understanding behavioral contexts and improving environmental conditions to optimize physical activity behavior as the default, and make healthy lifestyle habits, like exercise, the easy and valued choice is the only way we’re going to see a societal shift and population health benefits from PA and exercise research and interventions.”

What’s next for you? Do you have any future research projects lined up?

The current obesity prevention project is big – CBPR in six states in the Western U.S. over five years with three years of intervention in three Oregon counties – through 2016. I think I’ll wait another year to contemplate future research.”

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

“Say yes to anything to which you’re willing to give 110 percent – smile and say no to everything else.”

What advice would you give to current students and recent alums?

The same – I see a commitment made and fulfilled as the strongest measure of one’s personal integrity, trustworthiness and work ethic.”

What are your favorite activities to do outside of work?

Zydeco dancing and Creole cooking both shared with family and friends would have to be close to the top of my list, not including spending time with my daughter, which I don’t, because of work, do often enough. I enjoy my garden in the summer, a great book almost anytime and to ‘pass a good time’ in New Orleans whenever I can.”

Click here to learn more from CPHHS researchers in these “Inside the mind of researcher” feature stories.