A Population Researcher’s Take on Failure, Persistence and His Current Endeavors
The following is an interview with Robert L. Newton Jr., PhD, an associate professor in the Physical Activity and Ethnic Minority Health Laboratory at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Much of his work focuses on physical activity promotion and community-based interventions
What populations are you working on reaching, and what sorts of interventions are you using to improve the health of people in your community?
Dr. Newton: My work addresses health disparities in African American adults and children. Baton Rouge is about 55 percent African American so I’ve been able to connect with lots of members of the community to develop and assess programs aimed at improving health in that population. In Louisiana, we have the highest rate of obesity in the nation at 36 percent of adults, while one in two kids is considered overweight and obese, so my interventions are intended to be easily translatable into the community. Right now my Program for African American Cognition and Exercise (PAACE) research study is working to evaluate whether a physical activity program can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in African Americans. We’ll recruit sedentary adults between the ages of 65 and 85 who are currently sedentary and will assess whether a physical activity program can improve cognition in terms of attention, memory, executive control and processing speed.
Through my Mobile Men research study, I’m working to learn how African American men feel about using a mobile phone app to assist in maintaining their physical activity habits. I’m looking to learn whether regular exercise reminders and tips delivered through smartphones actually work—and how well—so we can develop tailored smartphone apps in the future that will better help this population stay physically active and avoid chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, which we know that African Americans are more at risk for.
I’m also working with local churches to deliver a weight loss intervention that integrates technology (text messages) to encourage church members to stick with the weight loss plan. It operates at the intersection of community and health in that we have members of the church who may have a health background delivering the intervention to their fellow church members. They meet regularly to weigh in on progress, learn behavior strategies and keep each other accountable. Even with the massive floods of last August that decimated the homes of thousands of people in the area, I’ve found that we have had a great adherence rate to this program.
What were the challenges you faced when you decided that your scientific focus would be on health disparities in minority populations—and how have you overcome them?
Dr. Newton: When I was an undergraduate and thinking about a research career, I was told that I couldn’t do ethnic and minority research and that I had to be broader with my science. But I decided that I wasn’t going to totally eliminate what I wanted to do, my passion, so I stuck with it. Don Williamson was an early mentor of mine when I first arrived at Pennington Biomedical in Baton Rouge. I distinctly remember one piece of advice he gave me. He said, “No is not an acceptable answer.” What he meant was that you have to learn to overcome obstacles that are in your way. You have to think outside the box and not rely on traditional systems or ways of thinking. You have got to be creative in problem-solving. For example, when I designed the ARTIIS study (a randomized, controlled exercise training program on insulin sensitivity in African American men), I knew that this study would be more successful if we were asking participants to exercise in their own neighborhoods instead of fighting traffic to get to our center. It was initially a challenge to find a local partner organization to work with us because there were some paperwork barriers, but instead of tossing the idea out the window, I kept pushing. Eventually, I found a great local organization – the YMCA – who partnered with us and helped us tremendously with the study. In short, you just can’t accept the answer you’re given—you have to find ways to make things happen, no matter how tough they may seem at first. It’s not always been easy, but that persistence that Don described has really helped me to overcome hurdles through the years.
What advice do you have for early career scientists who are seeking funding for population research?
Dr. Newton: No matter how early it is in your career, you probably know by now that it’s gotten a lot more difficult in recent decades to get a grant. When I first started my career, the paylines were about the 25th percentile and now they are around the 10th. Funding is really competitive, and I have to be honest—it never gets any easier to see that your grant was denied. What I’ve found is that you have to be optimistic because if you’re not, you’re going to miss some really great opportunities. If you want to do good science, you’re going to take the parts of the reviews that you can learn from and use them instead of taking offense to reviewers’ comments. Over the years, I’ve learned that after you read the initial review, sometimes taking some time off can be tremendously helpful, whether it’s a week or two weeks or a month working on something else—or taking a vacation! After a little time, I always come back to it re-invigorated and ready to take on the grant again with renewed energy.
What lessons have you learned that apply to your involvement with SBM?
Dr. Newton: Be persistent. We do this naturally as scientists. We reapply for grants that were unfunded and we resubmit manuscripts that were rejected. So I originally applied to be a co-chair of the the Ethnic Minority and Multicultural Health Special Interest Group (EMMH SIG) in 2015 and was denied. I was also denied a spot in the inaugural Leadership Academy. However, I reapplied in 2016 for EMMH SIG Co-chair and I was voted in. I kept my application available for the Leadership Academy and was accepted in the 2nd class.
Be open to new opportunities. A few years ago I gave a presentation on recruiting African American adults into clinical studies as part of our Work In Progress series at Pennington. A colleague of mine came up to me after and asked me if I was interested in conducting dementia research with African Americans. Prior to this, I had not conducted a single study involving an older population or one involving dementia. However, I took this as an opportunity to broaden my horizons. Although our collaboration has moved slowly largely due to other commitments on my end, we were recently were funded to conduct the PAACE study. Related to the Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM), I had not really thought about serving in an administrative role prior to applying to be co-chair of the EMMH SIG. But I was open to this opportunity when it became available. That resulted in greater opportunities within the SBM SIG organization as well, and now I am part of the Program Committee for the Annual Meeting and recently accepted a position on the Nominating Committee. I hope that more opportunities will arise within SBM in the future that I’m sure I’ll accept, and I’d encourage everyone to be open to these opportunities as well.