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Presidential Fellows study family dynamics, help for cancer patients

Robin Chenoweth
January 10, 2017

Two EHE students awarded 2017 Presidential Fellowships will spend the next year conducting pioneering research after winning a university-wide competition considered by many to be the most rigorous and prestigious graduate fellowship.

Lauren Altenburger, Human Development and Family Science, and Bradley Cotten, Ohio State's PhD Program in Nutrition, are among 17 recipients of the Ohio State fellowship. Both will receive one year’s financial support to the complete their dissertations.

Altenburger’s research could offer insights on how fathers can better parent their children, while Cotten is examining how a dietary therapy could reduce muscle wasting in cancer patients.

Specifically, Altenburger is researching how fathers’ parenting affects children’s cognitive and social adjustment. How well children adapt to the demands of elementary school depends largely on their interactions during their first two years, she said.

“However, the majority of research has focused on associations between mothers’ parenting quality and children’s cognitive and social adjustment,” she said, “despite fathers’ increasing involvement in their children’s lives.”

She is using data from the New Parents Project,  a longitudinal study that follows 182 married and cohabiting couples who became new parents between 2008-2009, to assess play between fathers and their 9-month-olds, as well as current data on the now 7-year-old children.

As the dads showed their babies how to play with a new toy, researchers recorded the interaction.

“The specific aspect of fathers' parenting quality that I am working with undergraduate students to code is fathers' ‘mind-mindedness,’ or tendency to treat the child as an individual with an autonomous mind,” Altenburger said.

In other words, does the father comment on what the baby might be thinking or feeling? “Oh, you really like the blue one!” or “You’re such a happy girl!”

This "mental-state" talk infers and verbalizes the child's thought processes based on what the parent sees. The theory is, children whose parents affirm their thoughts and feelings might better adjust socially and mentally as they go through life – call it an empathy builder.

While plenty of studies have measured the effect of mothers’ mind-mindedness on their children, Aldenburger’s is the first to focus on fathers. She is working with a team graduate and undergraduate students on a follow-up study that will focus on the how fathers’ mind-mindedness impacts children’s social adjustment and executive functioning — their ability to plan and organize and also control their emotions.

“Lauren is on a highly promising academic trajectory and poised to make significant contributions to knowledge regarding family relationships and children’s development,” said her advisor, Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, professor of Human Sciences. “Her strong capacity for independent thought juxtaposed with her collaborative spirit will ensure her status as a ‘rising star’ in the field of human development.”

Research could help cancer patients avoid deadly side-effect

Brad Cotten working in his lab. Presidential Fellow Brad Cotten works in his lab to help identify compounds that help prevent muscle-wasting in cancer patients.

Bradley Cotten’s research focuses on testing dietary compounds that might help cancer patients maintain muscle mass.

Called cancer cachexia, the condition causes weakness and the progressive loss of body weight, fat and muscle. It’s responsible for 20 to 30 percent of cancer deaths and currently is untreatable. Cotten wants to help change that.

“The broad goal of my dissertation is to investigate the impact of dietary flavonoids – a specific class of plant-derived compounds – to prevent muscle wasting,” he said.

In a first-time study, Cotten will compare the biological activity of naringenin – found in grapefruit and oranges – and 8-prenylnaringenin – found in hops and the medicinal herb sophora flavescens – to measure how well they protect against muscle atrophy in mice.

The study is the third in a series for Cotten. His first shows that flavonoids accumulate in multiple tissues in mice, including in muscle. The second indicates that muscles of postmenopausal mice are weaker than those of other mice, likely because estrogen supports muscle growth and function. The final phase will determine if flavonoids prevent cancer-related muscle wasting in both pre- and postmenopausal mice.

“As post-menopausal women lack estrogen to promote muscle function, this group may be especially susceptible to cancer-induced muscle wasting,” Cotten said.

“Our goal is to improve the lives of those suffering from cancer, and great universities such as Ohio State provide limitless opportunities to study and optimize disease treatment while improving the quality of life and care for others,” he said.

Cotten, whose advisor is Martha Belury, Human Sciences, also received a Pelotonia Graduate Fellowship for his cancer cachexia research.

“To follow that incredible reward with this fellowship is just mind-blowing,” he said.  “I am very blessed to work with a fantastic team of scientists in the (Martha) Belury Lab and look forward to our future work together.”



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