Q&A with Dr. Jennifer Orlet Fisher

Published: September 30, 2020

women with glassesNext Thursday, the 5th annual Philip R. Nader Legacy of Health Lectureship will take place virtually with the help of the UTHealth School of Public Health. The goal of this lectureship is to promote and inspire academics, providers, public health students and community residents to stimulate the fields of primary prevention and community pediatrics. This year’s keynote address comes from Dr. Jennifer Orlet Fisher, a professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Temple University and associate director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education where she directs the Family Eating Laboratory. In her lecture, Dr. Fisher will address topics surrounding childhood obesity, exposure to healthy eating, and public health. 

Dr. Fisher’s research focuses on the development of eating behavior during infancy and early childhood. The broad goal of her research is to understand how early eating environments influence child behavioral controls of food intake and health outcomes, particularly overweight. Her efforts focus on the role of the family environment, as a first and fundamental context in which eating habits develop. Dr. Fisher has more than 100 peer-reviewed research publications. Her work has received national media coverage by the New York Times, the Scientific American Frontiers series on PBS, and more recently, the Discovery Health Channel. Dr. Fisher was the 2006 recipient of the Alex Malspina Future Leader Award given by the International Life Sciences Institute North America. Dr. Fisher is Co-Executive Editor at Appetite, a scholarly journal dedicated to the study of ingestive behavior and is on the Editorial Board of Nutrition Reviews.  She is an active member of The International Society of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity and of The Obesity Society where she has held a number of leadership positions.

Before her keynote presentation at the 2020 Philip R. Nader Legacy of Health Lectureship, we reached out to Dr. Fisher to have her answer some questions she might not be able to address directly during her talk. Keep reading to learn more!

  1. How did your interest in Public Health begin? Relatedly, what path did your research take? Did you always think you’d be studying pediatric nutritional patterns and eating behaviors?

I’ve always been naturally curious about biological and social motivations for behavior.  But I actually entered graduate school with little forethought of a career in science, after an abrupt change in course in my plans. I joined the laboratory of the late Dr. Leann Birch in 1991 and it would turn out to be amazing fortune. Leann was a pioneer in the study of the development of eating behaviors among children. It was phenomenally exciting to be a student in her laboratory and I became completely enthralled with research—the idea of uncovering “truths” that had not been previously known. The contemplative, creative, and analytical nature of research suited me. I ended up spending close to a decade studying with Leann and have tried to continue on in those traditions. From a public health perspective, it is very rewarding to contribute to scientific understanding of how to raise children with healthy eating habits that can prevent a lifetime of diet-related chronic disease.

  1. What large-scale public health problems do you see specifically now during the COVID-19 pandemic vs. before the pandemic? With regards to public health, what do you want to see being done now, especially in a time like this?

The effects of COVID-19 on levels of food insecurity among US families is deeply concerning.  The data coming out indicate sharp increases in the number of children who are experiencing hunger sometimes or often--we know levels are particularly elevated in Black and Latino households. The impact of inadequate nutrition on development is profound and has lasting consequences over the life course on chronic disease. Increasing funding and access to federal food safety net programs like Women Infants and Children and SNAP has never been more critical.

  1. Do you have a favorite research project that you’ve worked on, or one that stands out to you?

I always smile when I think about my dissertation research. I designed an experiment to evaluate whether limiting children’s access to palatable snack foods might make the foods more desirable—the forbidden fruit concept.  In one phase of the experiment, we gave preschoolers two types of crackers for an afternoon snack.  In another phase, we changed the rules and made one type of cracker “off limits” by placing it in the middle of the table for all but a few minutes of the snack. As you can imagine, it did not take long for kids to figure out what was going on and some became agitated by the unjust situation in which they found themselves. On one occasion a young girl stood up, put her hand up in the air and said “I’m not going to take this anymore!  I’m out of here!  Who is with me?!!!” and ran out of the lab. I was too stunned to act and before I knew it a handful of kids followed her and out went the data along with them.  

  1. Do you have any advice for those pursuing a career in nutrition, pediatrics, or public health?

I think one of the most exciting aspects of pursuing a career in nutrition is its inherently interdisciplinary nature. The study of children’s eating behavior, for instance, not only requires knowledge of nutritional needs and biological influences, but also of child development, parenting, and other social and structural influences on children’s development. There are tremendous opportunities to bring together diverse disciplinary perspectives and lens that go well beyond the traditional nutritional sciences repertoire.

For more information about the Philip R. Nader Legacy of Health Lectureship or to register for the virtual event, please visit our website.