Stimulus Package Funds CU-Boulder Technology Development to Combat Obesity, Chronic Illness

Published: Aug. 4, 2009

A University of Colorado at Boulder faculty member is developing technological solutions to help address the increase in obesity and related chronic illnesses among low-income communities, thanks to funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Katie Siek, an assistant professor of computer science at CU-Boulder, has been granted more than $600,000 over a five-year period by the National Science Foundation's Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program for the research.

The grant is one of six CAREER awards won by faculty in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, and 14 received campuswide last year. Two of the CU-Boulder awards were funded through ARRA, also including one to Emily Yeh, assistant professor of geography.

Yeh's research, which received $490,000 in support, focuses on the emergence of environmentalism in China and Tibet and seeks to understand the ways in which environmental ideas travel and are adopted and articulated in particular times and places. The project, which will include learning and research opportunities for CU undergraduate and graduate students, will result in an ethnographic film about grassroots environmentalism in Tibet.

Siek is working with families in two of Denver's public housing neighborhoods to develop effective interventions based on social and environmental considerations. She is collaborating with the Bridge Project, a program operated by the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver that aims to help high-risk children graduate from high school and succeed as adults.

Siek's objectives for the project include learning how to integrate personal health records, or PHRs, into everyday life and empowering individuals who want to decrease their risk for cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses. A PHR is a health record created and owned by a patient that can be accessed during medical appointments.

"Assistive technology interventions provide an inexpensive method to disseminate information, track health metrics and give personalized feedback on outcomes for individuals," Siek said. "The effectiveness of these interventions has been limited for low-income communities because they have been designed with little consideration for the social and environmental context of health-related behaviors."

Siek hosted a technology design workshop last spring where some low-income children and parents explained how they make food choices and brainstormed ideas for what kinds of interventions they thought might help them. Attendees, many of whom learned English as a second language, talked about such things as the prevalence of fast-food restaurants in their neighborhoods and the shortcomings of the traditional food pyramid used to explain nutrition.

Siek plans to address such problems by combining different data streams, such as GPS maps showing the location of healthy food stores and nutritional, low-cost recipes, into user-friendly software. Creating and incorporating relevant messages, such as a more meaningful food pyramid and determining how health care providers could reinforce the positive benefits brought by the new system, also is part of the project's long-term scope.

"My overall career dream is to have a feedback loop between people and health care professionals where people can seamlessly track various health metrics of importance to them, reflect on this longitudinal data with their health care professional, and receive relevant feedback on how to improve their overall health and well being. A secondary goal is to provide health professionals with the tools necessary to use patient-generated data in their natural practices," said Siek, who is collaborating with medical ethics expert Ken Goodman at the University of Miami.

Siek plans to integrate her methodology and results into the health-related informatics courses she teaches at CU-Boulder, especially the First Year Engineering Projects course this fall called Games for Health.

She also will work with the Computer Science Teachers Association, National Center for Women and Information Technology, and CU's Center for Advanced Engineering and Technology Education to disseminate the research findings.