As the number of adults age 65 and older outnumbers children under age 5 for the first time in history, researchers studying healthy aging are becoming increasingly needed to ensure these older adults remain vibrant and productive members of their communities.
The College of Public Health and Human Sciences’ IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education, Research and Training) on Aging Sciences doctoral training program educates PhD students about global challenges in the world for which interdisciplinary approaches are necessary, creating top-notch researchers who make a difference in the field of aging.
“The goal for IGERTs has been to train ‘T-shaped scientists’ – that is, scientists with deeply specialized knowledge in their primary area paired with broad knowledge in a number of relevant disciplines,” says Oregon State IGERT Principal Investigator and CPHHS Professor Karen Hooker. “Our IGERT on Aging Sciences is the first and only IGERT to have aging as its thematic focus. Aging is inherently interdisciplinary – which makes it a relevant and important domain in which to train IGERT students.” Co-investigators on the project include CPHHS Professor Carolyn Aldwin, CPHHS Associate Professor Mike Pavol, Biochemistry and Biophysics Professor Tory Hagen and Ron Metoyer.
Because the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds the five-year grant that funds IGERT, has changed priorities and made a policy decision to fund individual students rather than programs at universities, the Oregon State IGERT program will conclude once the five-year funding cycle ends in June 2016.
“As our IGERT program funding comes to an end, we are proud that 28 doctoral students from disciplines as diverse as integrative biology, computer science and human development and family sciences will have made aging an integral part of their programs of study here at OSU,” says Karen, who serves as the Jo Anne Leonard Petersen endowed chair in Gerontology and Family Studies and Head of the college’s School of Social and Behavioral Health Sciences. “The fact that we have a Center for Healthy Aging Research demonstrates that we have the institutional infrastructure to sustain programmatic developments at OSU long after the NSF grant ends.”
The program has made a lasting impact on students, as well as on Oregon State, including creating a minor in Aging Sciences, which will continue to be available to all Oregon State students.
For those in the program, IGERT funding provided students with financial stipends, tuition, travel and research funding, which provided students with the resources and time to deeply explore aging and add knowledge of aging sciences to their existing research area.
“Often this was through a research experience with a researcher outside of their primary area, as well as working collaboratively with other IGERT students on a year-long project relevant to aging,” she says. “These projects have resulted in new knowledge that has been presented at peer-reviewed national and international conferences.”
At the most recent Annual Scientific Conference of the Gerontological Society of America meetings in Orlando, Fla., in November, 29 Oregon State students presented research on projects ranging from “Dog Ownership Correlates with Lower Blood Pressure among Older Adults” to “Pathways to Purpose in Life Revealed in Life Stories.”
Each IGERT student who has graduated from Oregon State has, in some way, incorporated aging into their first job post graduation.
“Some have gone on to research careers,” Karen says. “For instance, we have former students currently doing postdoctoral work at the University of Michigan, OHSU and UCLA. Others have gone onto academic careers or careers in industry such as at Intel.”
Learn more about the 2015 IGERT trainees and their research below:
Anne K. Julian
“I am delighted to be an IGERT trainee and I look forward to working in the interdisciplinary environment IGERT offers. My aging-related interests are very broad and stem from my previous work examining body image among Latina breast cancer survivors. Sociocultural models of body satisfaction and disordered eating that acknowledge the impact of social comparison, aging-related anxiety, appearance investment and media exposure hold in older adulthood, and messages about the aging body are pervasive in modern media. Aging is highly stigmatized in the United States, and I am interested in the role of ageist messages on body image, chronic weight control efforts and health outcomes during the transition to older adulthood.
I currently study indoor tanning and skin cancer prevention, a field in which appearance-based interventions use the threat of premature aging to deter UV exposure. As an IGERT trainee, I would love to investigate the role of beliefs about local climate and weather patterns, vitamin D and seasonal depression in intentional sun tanning and other UV exposure behaviors among older adults in Oregon.
I am also interested in robotics-assisted aging-in-place and the role of robots, and animal-robot interactions in the aging experience. In light of the changing scope of caregiving through the aging process, determining desirable attributes of an in-home robotic caregiver and identifying potential areas of shared responsibility are critical to the design of prototypes to address unmet caregiving needs. Robot caregivers and companions are in the future, but affordable robots designed to assist in physical, post-surgical and preventive care have the potential to ease the burden of care. I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to learn and make connections with the support of the IGERT fellowship. I look forward to being able to explore my aging-related interests in collaboration with IGERT students and faculty.”
“My research focuses on investigating the links between the circadian clocks and healthy aging. Within this research theme, I have been able to participate in several projects ranging from glutathione synthesis regulation to neurodegenerative disease. In my first major project, I investigated the roles of the circadian clock in neurodegeneration, exploring the interactions between the circadian clock and Alzheimer’s disease.
The circadian clock is a molecular mechanism found in many cell types including neurons and glia. These clocks help organisms coordinate physiological and behavioral processes, such as sleep and neurological function, into circa 24-hour cycles. As organisms age, the oscillation of the circadian clocks become impaired which may contribute to increases in oxidative stress, inflammation and neurodegeneration.
My current research involves investigating the roles of the glial circadian clocks in maintaining homeostasis in the aging brain. Glial cells are important for the functioning and maintenance of neurons and are the primary immune cells of the brain. However, it is not understood what specific processes are regulated by the circadian system in glial cells. My studies may provide novel insights into the molecular links between glial circadian rhythms and the health of the nervous system during aging in the well-established model system, Drosophila melanogaster.
While I have had the opportunity to study many topics related to aging, my experience has been largely limited to the molecular and behavioral research in Drosophila. Drosophila is an excellent model organism for aging research due to its short lifespan and the conservation of many aging related molecular pathways between flies and humans. I am excited that IGERT integrates different perspectives on aging from molecular to social. This interdisciplinary approach will provide me an opportunity to broaden my scientific knowledge and relate my studies in flies to healthy brain aging in humans.”
“My broad research interests include healthy aging, informal elder caregiving and the barriers and facilitators related to caregivers’ access to caregiving-related training and support services. For the purpose of my master’s thesis, I studied the process of preparing to give care among Mexican-origin informal caregivers. While I intend to continue building my understanding of the experiences of informal caregivers, I also hope to enhance my understanding of the experiences and unique perspectives of elderly care recipients.
It is my belief that developing a comprehensive understanding of the lived experiences of both caregivers and care recipients will support my ultimate goals of contributing to existing scientific literature on informal caregiving and supporting the development of innovative and effective programs aimed at improving the health and well-being of informal caregivers and their care recipients. I look forward to participating in the IGERT in Aging Sciences’ traineeship and am confident that the experience will uniquely prepare me for a career in research and teaching.”
“I am a doctoral student in Nutrition and perform laboratory research in the Linus Pauling Institute as well as the Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Lab (SARL). My research focuses on the role of adequate nutrition in maintaining optimal neurological health throughout the lifespan. Specifically, my current project aims at elucidating the effects of chronic vitamin E insufficiency on both neurodevelopment and brain function in old age using a zebrafish model.
As a trainee in the OSU IGERT in Aging Sciences, I am eager to expand my study of aging beyond the molecular and physiological levels by participating in the interdisciplinary research and academic opportunities provided by the program. I believe these experiences will provide me with a more comprehensive understanding of gerontology and will enhance my ability to conduct translational research than supports lifetime cognitive health.”
“My broad research interests are related to culture and aging and how they influence the developmental processes within families and communities. More specifically, I am interested in coping strategies, as culturally informed developmental processes that are passed down from the older adults to the younger generations. In many instances, it is the older adults who are the cultural icons that inform these developmental processes. This is particularly important within populations where the number of older adult caregivers who take on parental roles increases. Thus, I am interested in the transmission of sociocultural resources across generations.”