Undergrad Researching Diet & Exercise As Part of NIH Summer Internship Program

Max GaitanMax Gaitan, an undergraduate student majoring in kinesiology at the Curry School of Education, is spending his summer conducting research on the impact of diet and exercise on youth and college students as part of the National Institutes of Health Short-Term Research Experience for Underrepresented Persons (STEP-UP), a summer internship program designed to increase the participation of students with historically underrepresented backgrounds in biomedical research.  The program is a part of the American Physiological Society.

This program will allow Gaitan to engage in research at a deeper level that is typical for undergraduate students.

“I hope to gain a deeper understanding of how research is conducted at universities,” Gaitan said of his summer experience. “There are multiple aspects to the process, including reviewing existent literature, working with study participants, analyzing data, and drawing conclusions and presenting results. I plan to use the summer to develop skills in each of these areas.”

One of 22 fellows selected this year, Gaitan recently began his internship alongside faculty in the George Washington University department of exercise and nutrition sciences, where he is taking part in three studies already underway, as well as conducting a study of his own.

“This internship provides Max a rare opportunity to deepen his research experiences in the field of exercise, nutrition and obesity related metabolism,” said Steven Malin, assistant professor and co-director of the Curry School’s exercise physiology graduate program and laboratory. 

Gaitan’s interest in metabolism, diet and obesity is timely.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention one out of 3 adults, one out of 6 children in the United States are obese.

During the course of the summer, Gaitan will be joining three research projects already in progress and launching a project of his own.

Three weeks into his nine-week program, Gaitan has found his work with Alison Sylvetski Meni, a scholar who is working primarily on the metabolic and health effects of artificial sweeteners, to be particularly meaningful.

“Dr. Menim has already provided me many opportunities to learn about her field and explore aspects of the research process, and we have begun discussing my own independent project,” he said.

During his time at George Washington University, Gaitan will be working with Amanda Visek on a study called “Engaging Youth in Sports Participation,” a study in examining factors that keep young children involved in sport.  He will also be working on the study “Effectiveness of a Mobile Weight Loss Program for Overweight College Students” with Melissa Nepolitano.

According to Malin, the opportunity to work with scholars in Gaitan’s field of interest is one of the most significant benefits of the program.

“Max will get a unique chance to meet new investigators, learn cutting edge techniques that identify novel mechanisms related to disease, and broaden his perspective of how innovative research is conducted,” said Malin, who nominated Gaitan for the program.

Gaitan’s independent research project is titled “Association of Meal Timing and Frequency with Weight and Diet Quality in College Students.”

“I will examine the eating patterns of students who are living on their own for the first time, independent of a dining hall meal plan.”

His research will include collecting data about meal and snack frequency and timing, as well as physical activity habits and eating habits, such as, the eating alone or with friends, eating in restaurants or at home. Gaitan will also track the content of the students’ diets and track changes in their weight.

“I will be responsible for literature review, drafting a study protocol and other documents, participant recruitment, and data collection, entry and analysis.”

As part of the program, Gaitan received a $4,500 stipend as well as additional travel funds to present his research at the STEP-UP Summer Research Symposium August 2-6 in Bethesda, MD at the National Institutes of Health. 

Gaitan looks forward to how this summer will shape his future.

“I am interested in pursuing the fifth year exercise physiology master’s at U.Va.,” he said. “This summer should help solidify my interest in pursuing research in graduate school and beyond.”