Rutledge, research team earn prestigious grant to improve child health outcomes

Jul 26, 2021 | Applied and Natural Sciences, Faculty/Staff, Research

A team of educators and research colleagues, including Louisiana Tech University’s Dr. Julie Rutledge, Director of the University’s Education and Research in Children’s Health (ENRICH) Center in the College of Applied and Natural Sciences, has earned a competitive R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The group has recently been notified that the R01 award has been converted to an R37 MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) award. According to NIH, these awards “enable NIH Institutes to give investigators with stellar records of research accomplishment a five-year award with the possibility of extending the initial award” two additional years.

The grant will allow the team to expand their work in multiple new communities in north and south Louisiana as well as new communities across the state of Arkansas to improve health outcomes in children. It will also provide Tech students and staff with opportunities to work on a large-scale, community-based intervention project.

The R01/R37 grant, or Research Project grant—this one specifically from the NIH’s National Cancer Institute — is the most competitive type of federal funding program to obtain. An R01 provides support for health-related research and development based on the mission of the NIH.

The grant is the culmination of almost a decade of funding and project collaboration between Rutledge and her colleague, Dr. Taren Swindle, at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). The two most recently teamed for a study to discover if children’s “pester power” was related to a classroom-based nutrition program called Together, We Inspire Smart Eating (WISE), and if the education influenced, through the child’s at-home actions, the family’s dietary habits and parental food purchases and practices.

That study found that potential is high for children’s influence on food consumption and habits at home. They have also been working during COVID to adapt their program that focuses on teachers’ communication with children about food, WISE Words, into an online platform. Funding was provided through the Lincoln Health Foundation for program adaptation and beta testing during 2020-21 and the Translational Research Institute at UAMS for piloting in 2021-22.

According to Rutledge, an associate professor of Human Development and Family Science in the School of Human Ecology, “the potential community impact across Louisiana and Arkansas related to preventative health and nutrition among children, primarily those in Head Start programs, is the main source of our research team’s excitement.”

“Through this five-year grant, 4,800 children (2,400 in Louisiana and 2,400 in Arkansas) and 480 teachers (240 in Louisiana and 240 in Arkansas) will participate in our evidence-based nutrition education curriculum,” Rutledge said. “Our preliminary work over the past seven years suggests that our curriculum positively impacts health outcomes of children as well as parents. Additionally, we have seen positive changes in teachers’ communication and behavior surrounding mealtime environments.”

“On the scientific side, the research team will be able to test adaptive implementation strategies to determine optimal delivery levels of early prevention programs focused on childhood obesity. In other words,” Rutledge said, “we should be able to discover what level of implementation, or program delivery, support maximizes the positive health outcomes for children, and how cost effective the different strategies are relative to their benefit on health outcomes.”

The grant is led by Swindle. The team also includes other researchers from UAMS as well as the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, the University of Michigan, and the University of Arkansas Little Rock.

The five-year award is $3,700,780; $1,374,989 of that is coming to Louisiana Tech. Additional funding as part of the MERIT award will be determined at the end of the five-year initial award.