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Oklahoma State University

OSU researcher awarded NIH fellowship to study psychology of weight stigma

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

OSU doctoral student Natalie Keirns has spent countless hours studying the psychology of weight stigma. Last month, she was awarded a prestigious fellowship from the National Institutes of Health, and now she’s looking to build on her work and continue to combat obesity-related disease from the perspective of a clinical psychologist. 

Natalie Keirns 

“I was selected for this fellowship in recognition of my proposed dissertation research project entitled, "Acute Inflammatory Effects of Weight Stigma in Overweight/Obesity," and my success as a predoctoral researcher thus far,” she said.

“My research to this point, mentored by Dr. Misty Hawkins and supported by the OSU Research on Emotions and Cognition in Health lab (REACH), has been in the areas of obesity, weight loss, eating behaviors and related psychosocial factors. My overarching research goal is to identify novel ways to improve health in individuals with obesity, whether by increasing success of long-term weight loss maintenance or by identifying alternative psychosocial points of intervention (e.g., weight stigma)."

The Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Individual Predoctoral Fellowship (F31) includes $67,040 in funding over the next two years, and is aimed at enabling promising predoctoral researchers to obtain mentored research training while conducting dissertation research.  

Keirns said the funding will open more doors for training and mentorship while funding the last two years of her doctoral program. More importantly, she said, it will give her the opportunity to expand her research and its impact. 

“I conducted my thesis on intuitive eating, a style of adaptive eating that is driven by using internal cues of hunger and fullness to regulate eating,” she said. “More recently, much of my research has focused on understanding the negative physical health consequences of weight stigma and identifying stigma as a crucial factor to consider when promoting health for individuals with obesity.”

Hawkins, an assistant psychology professor who serves as Keirns’ advisor, said Keirns is a worthy recipient of the fellowship and looks forward to what she’ll be able to accomplish with it. 

“She is one of only three students in the past 20 years to land an F31 at OSU,” Hawkins said. “I’m so impressed by her.”

Keirns said she is excited about what the fellowship means for her research and her dissertation: an experimental study investigating changes in inflammation following a weight stigma manipulation. 

“We hypothesize that experiencing weight stigma will lead to an inflammatory response in the body, which is a sign of stress,” she said. “Chronic inflammation is associated with many negative health outcomes commonly attributed to obesity, such as heart attack and stroke. Therefore, if this hypothesis is supported, it would suggest that experiencing weight stigma may be one pathway by which excess weight leads to poor health.” 

Keirns said this would draw attention to the need to address weight stigma at the societal level and the need to address weight stigma in the development of weight loss interventions. 

“In addition to my dissertation study, the fellowship will allow me to complete other ongoing research projects in collaboration with my F31 mentorship team, including investigating the effects of internalizing weight stigma, or applying the negative attitudes and stereotypes about excess weight to oneself, and differential effects of various distributions of excess weight, such as primarily around the waist versus primarily around the hips and thighs.”

Through the F31, Keirns will get to work under the mentorship of successful researchers both at OSU and beyond. Her mentorship team at OSU includes Drs. Misty Hawkins, Jaimie Krems, Jennifer Byrd-Craven and Sam Emerson. Additionally, she will learn from the mentorship of leading scholars in the field of weight stigma and obesity research at the University of Pennsylvania and UCLA.

MEDIA CONTACT: Mack Burke | Editorial Coordinator | 405.744.5540 | mack.burke_iv@okstate.edu

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