ASU News

President's Professor finds stigma of obesity spreading around globe

June 3, 2013

Alexandra Brewis Slade’s interest in obesity studies wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm at first. In the early '90's, a colleague at the University of Auckland warned her that obesity was a marginal area for a social scientist to work in, a bit odd and freakish, and its explicit study was probably not the best career move.

Brewis Slade persisted, studying the body image of Pacific Islanders, who at that time were among the most overweight populations on earth. She went on to study the cultural aspects of schoolchildren’s obesity in rural Georgia and central Mexico, many of whom were at high risk for being obese. Alexandra Brewis Slade Download Full Image

Now she is a widely-cited expert, having worked on comparative studies of obesity through field research in a broad array of countries such as Paraguay, New Zealand and Fiji.

Brewis Slade, director and professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has been named a 2013 President’s Professor for her contributions to undergraduate education at ASU. She also is ASU-Mayo Clinic Obesity Solutions director of operations.

Brewis Slade notes that in a stunningly short time, obesity has gone from being considered an aberration in both popular culture and scientific circles, to being perceived as a massive global threat. Unlike many global calamities such as climate change, no one seemed to notice the dramatic rise in obesity until it was well under way.

“Obesity is arguably one of the greatest public health challenges we face, infiltrating almost every aspect of our lives,” says Brewis Slade. “It shapes whether we get into college, the job offers and promotions we get, how much money we make, our access to health care, our romantic relationships. We are bombarded in the media with messages about the need to be slim and lose weight.

“We associate obesity with moral failure, with a lack of control, laziness and lack of ambition. The stigma of being obese is profound, and it causes tremendous emotional suffering.  The social cost is just as important to address as the health cost.”

Cruel comments about weight are socially acceptable in many circles, and are a leading factor in childhood bullying, she says.

She also has found that globalization has spread the stigma associated with obesity from the western world to other parts of the world, including regions that previously viewed large body size in a neutral or positive light. Her research shows that negative media and public health messages about obesity are so powerful that they overshadow the positive support of family and friends in shaping how people feel about their large body size.

Her most recent work on obesity-related stigma particularly appears to have hit a cultural nerve. Her comment, “Of all the things we could be exporting to help people around the world, really negative body image and low self-esteem are not what we hope is going out with public health messaging,” was quote of the day in the New York Times and was mentioned on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” which she notes with good humor.

Her research team’s work on obesity also has focused on university students, based on research conducted at ASU. They have confirmed that obesity is socially contagious, and the risk of a woman’s obesity rises if her friends and family members are obese. Shared eating and exercising habits may have the strongest correlation. Currently her team is working with a start-up company to design ways of using smart phones to connect friends and family to exercise together.

“There are lots of reasons why we gain weight, and we know that telling people to ‘eat less and exercise more’ doesn’t work. We’re swimming upstream with that approach, because people are working long hours, they don’t have time to exercise or make home-cooked meals. We have to look at what’s possible to change.

“Instead of blaming people for their condition, we need to step back and look at the structure of our cities, our neighborhoods, our schools and our campuses, that shape health at every level.”

She works with ASU students enrolled in research practicum classes to do research on the campus, such as surveys, focus groups and interviews with other students. Fat stigma is surprisingly high at ASU, she says; about 20 percent of students would rather be blind than obese. Her work with undergraduates has a view to designing more healthful campuses, from the perspective of people’s norms and behaviors related to weight, exercise and nutrition.

Brewis Slade’s research is ultimately concerned with the complex interactions between human biology and culture, looking at human health in the context of massive transformational processes such as globalization and climate change. She enjoys working in diverse collaborative teams, a factor that led her to join ASU in 2006.

“ASU is a fantastic place for someone like me who thinks around the edges of problems,” she says. “I’m inspired and invigorated by the transdisciplinary environment at ASU. It’s an energetic, exciting place, and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.”

She believes the partnership with Mayo makes it possible, for the first time, for a university to think of tackling the challenge of obesity on a global scale.

“What makes ASU able to attempt this is the comprehensive nature of our expertise, and the scale and scope of our collective research. We have people with talent and expertise that can be applied to almost any aspect of the complicated problem of obesity, from the built environment, to food choices, to genetics. ASU’s coverage is unmatched in the volume of different ways we can devise to tackle the problem.

“Partnering with Mayo gives us additional access to talent in the medical understanding and treatment of obesity. This provides us with a truly massive shared toolkit to address the complicated challenge of obesity.”

The recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship and an Andrew W. Mellon post-doctoral fellowship, Brewis Slade has published 55 papers and three books, including “Obesity: Cultural and Biocultural Perspectives” in 2011.

ASU News

ASU student creates algae-inspired art

June 4, 2013

Making what’s commonly referred to as “green slime” artistic may seem like a herculean feat, but Arizona State University student Phillip Carrier is using tiny algae plants as inspiration for an art installation project as a Master of Fine Arts student from the Herberger Institute School of Art.

Carrier will blend art and science together throughout two summer semesters on the ASU Polytechnic campus as the inaugural artist in residence at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI). Phillip Carrier at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Technology Download Full Image

“I am thrilled to have this opportunity to work on a project that fuses the fields of art and technology, especially with the research community at AzCATI,” Carrier said. “Their in-depth research in algae will be an essential catalyst for my artwork and I'm excited to dive in to this project.”

AzCATI, which is embedded within the College of Technology and Innovation at ASU and part of the ASU LightWorks initiative, will provide tools, some financial support and space for Carrier to work throughout the summer. Once complete, Carrier’s instillation will remain at the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 3 (ISTB3) on the ASU Polytechnic campus for visitors, as well as resident students, staff and faculty, to enjoy.

Installing art in the building not only serves to add interest to the building’s modern architecture, but also serves a higher purpose, said Gary Dirks, director of LightWorks and director of the Global Institute of Sustainability.

“Great minds, from scientists and researchers to philosophers and poets, must work together to create a cultural shift toward a sustainable existence,” Dirks said. “Artists like Philip tell stories that instruct us or stimulate us into thinking about what that future is going to look like.”

Adriene Jenik, ASU School of Art director, said the relationship between LightWorks, AzCATI and the School of Art can foster and enable new insights or perspectives on the research done at the algae center.

“Our goal with this pilot artist residency (what we hope will be the first of many) is to conduct our own creative research and outcomes alongside the algae researchers,” Jenik said. “The complex processes and systems being designed and pursued in the building can be distilled into an affective experience that goes beyond illustrative diagrams and bullet points, further enabling the realization of a sustainable future.”