Guided by Personal Illness, CELS Professor Achieves Research Excellence Award

When Dr. Alison Tovar headed to college as a freshman in the 1990s she, like most students, was unsure of her future career path. Then, a visit to the doctor’s office abruptly brought her health and studies into sharp focus, eventually spurring a career in public health. At age 19, Tovar was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a disease most often diagnosed in children and young adults, in which the body is unable to regulate blood-sugar levels. Tovar learned how to manage her disease through healthy eating and medication, and searched for ways to share that knowledge with others. For Tovar, that meant working to prevent childhood obesity and its possible consequence, type 2 diabetes.

REA“My career is definitely tied to my personal experience,” explains Tovar, Assistant Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Rhode Island.

Tovar’s interest in diabetes led her to pursue a dual master’s degree in nutrition and public health and a PhD in nutrition from Tufts University. As a junior researcher, Tovar was troubled by the number of young children with obesity, which can lead to type 2 diabetes, the preventable form of the disease.

“I had one of those moments where I thought, ‘this is just wrong.’ These children have a chronic disease that they now have to maintain throughout their lives,” reflects Tovar. “It was a moment of anger and I wanted to be part of the solution.”

Now, in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, Tovar investigates ways to prevent childhood obesity in her Community Nutrition and Childhood Obesity Prevention Research Group. Tovar’s research with underserved populations, which have the highest risk for obesity, and her ability to work collaboratively with other institutions helped her secure two competitive National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants in partnership with colleagues from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Brown University. “Not being afraid to make connections, reaching out to other researchers and building good collaborations” made the grants possible, according to Tovar. The NIH grants allow her research group to study multiple aspects of childhood obesity.

One focus of their work is how parent behaviors can impact the diet of Latino preschool-age children in Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls, Rhode Island, where obesity is five times greater for Latino children than for white children.

Tovar also provides nutritional education, empowering parents and childcare providers to create healthier food environments, thereby facilitating healthier personal choices. The problem of obesity is complex, as Tovar explains: “In order to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic we will all need to work together to make the ‘healthy choice’ the ‘easy choice.’”

In 2015, the University of Rhode Island recognized Tovar’s scholarly efforts by awarding her the Early Career Faculty Research Excellence Award in the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Engineering for superior research, scholarly, or creative activities. In addition to her rigorous scientific studies, Tovar’s collaborations with community groups and other research institutions set her apart. 

Tovar, who says she was “a bit surprised” to learn of the nomination, lists the honor as one of her proudest accomplishments. She credits the University of Rhode Island for providing her with the necessary support that enabled her to thrive. “I was given the resources to hit the ground running,” remarks Tovar.   

In the future, Tovar plans to continue her work with parents and childcare providers to help make mealtimes healthy and enjoyable. She hopes to create positive change in the lives of children and ultimately reduce the incidence of childhood obesity and its medical complications. The support and recognition she received from the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences gets her one step closer to realizing her goals.