In a society where diet books perpetually top best-seller lists, television ads promote half-pound hamburgers or all-you-can-eat dinner buffets, and plus-size clothes are now fashionable instead of frumpy, obesity has become an integral part of American culture. Jennifer Lovejoy lives off that fat of the land as an obesity researcher and dean of the School of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Bastyr University in suburban Seattle. "Obesity is a huge public-health problem, but it's also personally devastating to people in its impact on self-esteem and discrimination," she says.
Lovejoy's interest in obesity began while she was doing postdoctoral research in endocrinology and metabolism at Emory University, but her connection to the field dates to her undergraduate days at Duke. She remembers visiting Trent Hall with her parents, before she enrolled, and eating in the dorm's cafeteria, where participants in the Duke Rice Diet studies also dined. "We were probably the only people under 300 pounds there," she recalls. "That really made a big impression on me."
She later moved to the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University, where she specialized in women's health and nutritional studies. She is now in the final year of a seven-year study of 160 women going through menopause, funded by the National Institutes of Health, and seeking funding for a study of the effect of estrogen on female metabolism.
"Obesity research is the perfect interface between biology and psychology," says Lovejoy, who studied zoology at Duke and earned a Ph.D. in physiological psychology from Emory. "It's a two-way street for obese patients. A lot of emotional and psychological factors mediate biology."
The opportunity to meld the two sides of her research was a major factor in her decision to give up an endowed professorship at LSU in 2003 to join the faculty at Bastyr. The 1,200-student university was founded in 1978 to train physicians in naturopathic medicine, a mix of conventional and natural treatments. "Naturopathic, integrated medicine combines the best of Western medicine and complementary treatments," she says. "A middle-of-the-road approach like that is usually the best for most patients." Still, she adds, because most alternative treatments come out of a folk tradition, more research needs to be done to establish a scientific basis for their effectiveness, which could help them become more widely accepted.
As dean of the School of Nutrition and Exercise Science, Lovejoy works in therapies already considered mainstream treatments for improving health. Exercising regularly and eating a high-fiber, low-fat diet is widely known as the best way to reduce the incidence of obesity, she says, but convincing many people to make those lifestyle changes has proved difficult. Bastyr conducted an eight-week study last fall using interactive cable-television programs to boost weight loss, and she expects such interactive programs to become more prevalent in the future.
"We're primarily a teaching institution, but she has enhanced our structure by advocating more research among the faculty," says Tiffany Reiss, faculty chair in the School of Nutrition and Exercise Science. "She is businesslike but personable. You don't often get that combination in an administrator. And, unlike most academics, who focus on one area of interest, she's multi-faceted."
A classically trained pianist, Lovejoy has used the move to Bastyr to incorporate her musical interests into her research. She says music can aid in healing, and she likes the openness to various approaches the university offers. "I used to separate my personal and scientific interests, but I don't have to here," she says.
Jennifer Lovejoy '82
June 1, 2006