Chair of the Tufts University’s School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, Aviva Must is working to better understand obesity risk factors in adolescent and special needs populations.
“Obesity is such a complex condition, and its study requires one to think from a multidisciplinary perspective,” she explained.
Must is also the Morton A. Madoff, M.D., M.P.H., Chair in Community Health, one of twelve endowed chairs at Tufts with a significant public service dimension. Provost Jamshed Bharucha and Tisch College support the active citizenship of these endowed chairs by bringing them together to discuss the civic engagement elements that connect their work across disciplines.
As obesity emerged as a public health nutrition challenge, Must broadened her focus and activities to include policy, program, and advocacy interests, including in adolescent populations.
“My particular interest in adolescence as a developmental stage probably comes from the fact that from the biological and psychological perspectives it is a time of great change, in addition to being a time of social and economic transition” she explained. “All this flux sets the adult course, and thus takes on great importance as a gateway to adult health status.”
In addition to better understanding obesity risk factors among adolescents, she is also looking at obesity in special needs populations. In collaboration with the Eunice Kennedy Shiver Center at University of Massachusetts, Must is exploring how to better address obesity issues for this specific population.
“Obesity has emerged as a problem for virtually all population groups, but this subpopulation is often at high risk, due to their disabling conditions. This dramatic health inequality is often overlooked as we design interventions,” she said. “These individuals’ ability to live independently is directly threatened by the obesity-related chronic conditions that will develop if their risk of being overweight is left unchecked.”
In addressing this problem through her research, Must hopes to discover better solutions.
“My interest in this work is fueled by the public health significance of the problem, and my desire to see things get better for this group,” she added.
As a public health practitioner, Must sees active citizenship as an integral part of her research, teaching, and view towards public health.
“Public health is very tied into active citizenship because it is about collective action to improve health,” she explained. “Programmatically, we seek to put ‘the fire in their bellies’ to go forth and work to bring about change for the better health of all people.”
This is especially true at Tufts, she elaborated, where educational programs are dedicated to training students to see health as a social justice issue.
“Our internships and practica are designed to engage students in ways that help them see how public health works to deliver that change. In my research and in my classroom teaching I continue to look for ways to involve students in my own work and to encourage their active involvement in community programs and in advocacy settings.
Through her research, Must has collaborated with other health practitioners across the state to address obesity-related issues in Massachusetts.
“The new Body Mass Index screening and reporting policy for Massachusetts schools has provided the opportunity to work with state health department colleagues in crafting materials to support schools and to communicate with parents,” she said. “It’s exciting to be involved in the research that generates policy change and then be in a position to actually work on crafting the local policies and their implementation.”
Since she began teaching at Tufts in 1992, Must has taught a range of courses in epidemiology and related topics in medical and public health programs. This fall, for the first time, Must is teaching Community and Public Health Nutrition, a course for public health and nutrition graduate students.
Originally published January 2010