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Running the Numbers

As a marathon enthusiast – she’s completed six – Sonali Rajan (Ed.D. ’10) can personally attest that she focuses better at work after a solid morning run. But as a behavioral scientist with a particular interest in helping at-risk youth, Rajan, a TC alumna who recently returned to the College as Assistant Professor in the Department of Health and Behavior Sciences, is in constant search of harder evidence connecting the physiological and the behavioral.  

“I like statistics,” says Rajan, who uses numbers to help determine which kinds of health and behavioral interventions are most likely to succeed. “We have many school-based programs and services – very good programs and services – that only target, for example, drug prevention. There’s nothing wrong with that, but realistically we can’t be implementing 12 programs in a day. We need to be addressing the overall quality of health among our kids in a very synergistic way.”  

Rajan coauthored the middle school curriculum for Girls on the Run International, an after-school program that uses this kind of synergistic model.  Volunteer coaches guide young girls, ages 8-13, through a series of lessons about health-related issues such as nutrition and bullying, while also getting their feet moving. In designing the curriculum, Rajan also developed a formative evaluation to help predict instructor adherence to different lessons, then used those results to improve the curriculum for the following year. She sees this kind of data-driven research as essential to designing curricula and improving the efficacy of health education programs and other behavioral interventions.

“We have all these programs, but we’re not making enough headway” against the societal issues they’re designed to address, she says. By using statistical data to inform the development of programs that will address key noncognitive skills (such as decision-making or social and emotional coping mechanisms) in a variety of contexts, Rajan hopes to increase the quality of health, particularly among children and early adolescent youth.

It’s no accident that Rajan takes a synergistic approach to health issues. Her adviser and mentor at TC, Charles Basch, Richard March Hoe Professor of Health Education, has worked for years to coordinate efforts to improve students’ health as a means of overcoming the minority achievement gap (see the story on page 32).

“My research interests really emerged in working with Chuck,” says Rajan. “We have programs that target so many issues in schools, but the question of how to do it feasibly, which is something he has focused on, is just as important as the programs themselves.”

Following her student days at TC, Rajan completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Development and Research Institutes. There she began working with Noelle Leonard, a senior research scientist at the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research at New York University’s College of Nursing, using specially designed wristbands to monitor stress levels in adolescent mothers at risk for a range of parenting issues. When the wearer sweats, the wristband collects data and sends it to a smartphone that then forwards it both to the researchers and to the mothers themselves. This immediate feedback about their stress levels is intended to prompt the young mothers to use stress-reduction techniques they’ve previously learned in 10-week group sessions.

Rajan explains that she and Leonard’s research team are looking to employ interventions that are even more immediate. “We’re testing out a series of them – a text message that has a calming message, a video with a peer saying something encouraging, a picture of their baby sleeping to remind them that this will pass.”

Much of Rajan’s future work will focus on evaluating the feasibility and efficacy of school-based programs that educate teens on noncognitive skills, such as making choices. “The pathologies underlying risky decisions that youth make each day – and how they make them –are very similar across the board,” she explains, “whether they choose to overeat or undereat or engage in substance use or to not use condoms.  At the end of the day, they’re learning to make decisions, and they’re learning how to navigate their world.”

Published Friday, Dec. 7, 2012