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Mixed feelings

Goodbyes are hard. Leaving home ain’t easy, even if it means going back home at the same time.

I cleaned my desk this afternoon. I had been piling paper all year and while I was going through the stacks to see what to throw into recycling bin and what to lug back to Finland with me, I got flashbacks about everything that’s happened in eleven months.

Five papers that I’ve authored or co-authored have been submitted this year and a few more are work in progress. One has already been accepted and should come out any day now. I’ve presented posters at SNEB and ACR conferences, learning about different research and practice perspectives from nutritionists and consumer researchers. We are also developing an application for small, concrete habit changes which aim to change the triggers and cues in the environment. All in all, it’s been a fairly productive year, although many things that were being planned or even started never came to fruition. Perhaps that is a good thing: survival of the fittest ideas. And my resolve to strive to do meaningful and practically useful research has strengthened.

Nevertheless, papers and posters weren’t the things that I was reminiscing. Instead, I formed a mental collage of things that made it possible for me to enjoy working – and living – here. It all comes down to good people and small daily things, interaction and collaboration.

I’ll take with me Adam’s constant encouragement and uplifting quips, Sandra’s infinite patience, Kate’s bubbly energy, Julia’s laughter, Sudy’s smart decisiveness, Aner’s kindness that manifests in so many ways, Drew’s unwavering enthusiasm, and Brian’s radiant warmth and generosity. I’ll also remember those who left before me: Margaret’s resilience, Will’s hands-on attitude, Alyssa’s good-heartedness, our summer interns. Not to mention people I met at Maplewood, improv, Ithaca Health Alliance, Amnesty, Toastmasters, conferences, AIDS Ride, and just generally everywhere at Cornell and Ithaca. Memories of them will stay with me.

To name a few… Charlie, Annie (“yes, and”), Marjaneh, Gulzhan, Javad (richness and beauty of Persian and Kazak culture), Daniela, Kris, Simone, Alice (the four kindred spirits who I hope to see again in Europe), John (“I’m always good”), Lijin, Yun, Yi, Xiyue, Joanne (great housemates), Jason, Lorraine (newcomers to Cornell, unite), Andrea, Amy, Claire, Rob (healthcare for all), Wayles, Andy, Ute (human rights), Taz, Ron, Cheryl, Ishbel (building confidence), Erin and David (delightfully wacky), two Daniels. Brian and Adam’s families, so lively and accepting. This incredible diversity.

Mindless golf tournament with Adam, Kate and Rex, when I managed sometimes to swing the club fairly well, but only if one of them reminded me about the correct stance. Adam piggybacking me up the stairs after the Dragon Day parade, when I was still on crutches. Road trips, late night talks, and great dinners with Brian. Reading a bedtime story to his daughter. AIDS Ride in perfect weather. Birthday surprise arranged by Kris. Aner’s improv classes and movie nights. Lunch break banter. Hugs and laughs…

I will miss you, guys. Eleven months is just enough time to realize that I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like.

Yet at the same time, I am happy about going home. Being seven hours and over six thousand kilometers away from the person I otherwise share my life with has been tough, and I also long to see my family and friends again (including those who visited this year). What’s more, our group of people at work is equally nice and good-hearted. I could make a similar catalogue of memories about the years I’ve been working at VTT. Wouldn’t be a bad idea, actually.

Coming a full circle – the mix of sad and happy feelings is kind of similar to the ones I had when I came here. I’m happy that I care about people so much that I feel sad about having to leave them. And even if I won’t see some of them again, the connections have been real and left a lasting and overwhelmingly positive impact. I wish I can help others to connect as well.


Publishing and Outreach

Ah. Apologies for the long hibernation on this blog. Been sick and travelling – had a stomach flu in the beginning of April, visited my beloved snowy, rainy Finland in mid-April, went to Washington DC last weekend and got struck down by a regular flu for the first part of this week. I think I’ve done more than enough sickness for this year, now it’s time to get on with more interesting things!

The trip to Washington DC was about presenting Mindless Eating research to the general public at the Science & Engineering Festival. Brian was invited there by NIH and he asked Alyssa and me to join him. (Alyssa’s interning at the lab, she’s incredibly smart, resourceful and good-hearted, and knows everything about psychology and nutrition already.) We set up a booth with half a dozen activities for people to try out to illustrate research findings in practice – for example, how plate color influences the amount we eat, how 1170-calorie Subway sandwich is perceived as having less calories than 540-calorie Big Mac because of Subway Health Halohow transparent containers and jars make us eat more than opaque ones, and how more variety (colors or types of food) makes us eat more.

Alyssa illustrating the Subway Health Halo with real sandwich specimens.

The booth was amazingly popular and I think that people, kids and adults alike, really left it with an increased understanding of mindless eating traps and how to avoid them. Alyssa’s lively and engaging way of presenting the research was the most important thing in making that happen. I did my best to support her and I had some interesting discussions with people as well. Overall, the experience was great, since it felt like we were managing to educate people in a way that felt interesting to them.

I also learned during the trip that there are only two major challenges that a researcher faces:

  • Get it written. I’m sure we’re all familiar with writer’s block. Nowadays, I’m trying to keep in mind what Ernest Hemingway said: “The first draft of everything is crap.” Just get something on the paper and hone it afterwards.
  • Get it submitted. At some point the honing needs to stop. Getting over the fear of rejection is hard, but rejection is  a regular and expected thing on the academic playground. Just submit, get it back with comments, revise and resubmit or revise and submit somewhere else.

They actually have an excellent system here at Food & Brand Lab for keeping track of papers and journals. They maintain an Excel sheet with a list of all possibly relevant journals from various fields and a list of all papers with their statuses. For each paper, they work out a priority order for target journals (for instance, 1. Nature, 2. JAMA, 3. Preventive Medicine, … 10. Obscure Journal of Research Not Accepted Anywhere Else). That way, if/when a paper gets rejected, there’s no need to revisit the process of figuring out where to submit it. It can just be submitted to the next journal on the list.

That’s a good process to increase efficiency of the publication pipeline. But it’s not enough to just do research and publish in academic channels. If we want to have societal impact, the real challenge is explaining the research results to the real world so that normal people can understand and use them. That’s also something they do here really well: each published article gets its own outreach page, which explains the results in a not-too-academic manner and has links to all press about the research.

Making sure that the press doesn’t twist the findings into something totally unrecognisable is also good.

Plate Wasting

My first field trip was last Wednesday to a local elementary school, where we went to measure plate waste after school lunch. We waited in the area where kids usually come to leave their trays, intercepted them and marked down the amount of leftover food/liquid for each item on a tray (none, 1/4, half, 3/4, all). This method of measuring plate waste is called visual estimation, and it’s been shown to correlate closely with waste measured by weighing. It’s also much quicker, more convenient, and so easy that even I could do it.

It was sad to see such an awful amount of food going to waste. I didn’t really mourn that much about things that weren’t proper food such as chocolate milk, rainbow-colored sugary yogurt, or hamburger buns, but I hated throwing away apples that were left untouched, dumping vegetables into the bin, or pouring away unflavored milk. The small comfort is that most of the things went into the compost bin – at least they will be recycled somehow.

Lunch was quite different from what I recall in my hazy memories about elementary school: here, almost everything was pre-packaged and there was no water, just juice and milk. In my school, we had a lunch lady who served us food on our plates, and we could regulate the amount of serving by saying “just a little” or “a lot”, depending on how hungry we were that day. Of course, that’s probably something that varies from school to school both here and in Finland.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been around so many kids at the same time. They were pretty cute (although noisy) and most of them looked healthy and normal-weight. Some of them seemed quite smart and inquisitive, too. One girl was especially interested in what we were doing. She told us that she had eaten everything on her tray, and said that her mother instructs her to only take what she can eat. She also had critical comments about high sugar content in food and unnecessary wasting by throwing away unopened cartons.

There was also some gender-questioning, since my male workmate had a ponytail. We had to answer tricky questions such as “If you’re a girl, why do you have short hair, and if he’s a boy, why does he have long hair?” and “Are you both girls?” I hope we managed to challenge some of the stereotypies they’ve already developed.

January’s crops

The first three weeks have flown by really quickly, so time to pause for a moment and see what I’ve done and planning to do at the Lab. Believe it or not, I’ve been trying to get work done too, not just running around applying for social security numbers, fixing myself a bike, and chasing squirrels!

Mindless Eating Challenge data. I’m currently analyzing what kinds of eating tips are effective for people who want to lose weight. For instance, is it better to ask people to change their physical environment or eating habits, or rely on their willpower? (I personally think that in the long run, all are needed – it’s good to eliminate some of the temptations, but being mindful of what and how one eats is also necessary.)

The dataset consists of about 2000 people who participated in the online National Mindless Eating Challenge a few years ago. Each participant got three eating suggestions that were based on the research done over the years in Food & Brand Lab, and was advised to follow these suggestions for a month. Basically, like this.

The tips are meant to be easy and simple, since small sustainable changes are better than large ones that cannot be sustained, both on individual and population level. Adding 20 minutes of walking to a day, changing one unhealthy snack to a fruit, eating salad first during meals – they don’t require a lot of sacrifice or effort from a person, but they can work as first steps to a lasting habit change. And throwing in some environmental changes, such as using smaller plates, makes it easier not to stuff oneself.

Now if I can just figure out which tips are the best, and perhaps even find some clues for profiling people who benefit the most from certain types of tips…

Habit change interventions. These are still on the drawing board; I’d love to develop some easy, simple, and low-cost interventions that tackle stress management and healthy eating. Could be something similar to Mindless Eating Challenge, but with the added flavor of relaxation/mindfulness, values clarification, and problem-solving strategies. Improving people’s abilities and self-efficacy as well as helping them make concrete changes. All this on web or mobile platform, of course – not for the sake of technology, but because that’s how it would be possible to reach almost anyone.

Lab experiments. I’m quite interested in emotional eating and eating behaviors under stress, and studying these things in a laboratory setting could provide insight in developing interventions for them. Something like making the participants try to complete impossible tasks to increase their stress level, then giving part of the group relaxation or mindfulness exercise, and finally seeing how their subsequent eating behavior is influenced. You can probably guess what my hypothesis of the outcome is.

Even if nothing earth-shattering would come out of it, it would be good to try my hands on this kind of experimental research. During these first three weeks, I’ve participated in one study (wine appraising – just looking, not tasting, unfortunately) and observed another bunch of small studies to gain understanding in their practicalities. The department has a pretty good lab for running all sorts of studies.

Conferences & publications. I’ll try to attend at least a couple of interesting nutrition-related conferences; one is SNEB in July, another could be APHA in October. Even better if I manage to write something presentable there too! Then there’s of course EMBC, which is so near (well, only on the other side of the continent, not the world) and such a big event that I should probably go. Good chance to meet folks from Finland as well 😉

Aaand, some journal papers will also be written, certainly.

Food & Brand Lab class. Some sort of unofficial studying going on too. Brian and Aner teach a course for undergrads, with the purpose of helping them understand consumer behavior by involving them in research. I’ve decided to participate at least in some of the classes, even though I’m old as grit, since they can provide new ideas and perspectives. This week’s class was already helpful: we used a Q-sort method to form categories for 33 different tips and select interesting comparisons to make.

Gotta say that Brian and Aner are both really smart and incredibly friendly. And the list doesn’t end there; in fact, that description fits everyone in the Lab. I feel I’ve been very fortunate to hop from one wonderful workplace to another.

I also really like the university’s motto by the founder Ezra Cornell: “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” Although that’s probably one reason why, apparently, Ithaca is the City of Evil in some people’s books. It’s funny how caring about things such as human rights and environment can be seen in that light.

Anyway, it’s a new month now and lots of interesting stuff to be done. I wonder if it will snow in February… it’s only been a handful of days with snow so far, and it feels a bit unnatural. I was told that Ithaca should have harsh winters, but haven’t seen much of that yet.

Beebe Lake in the end of January

First day at work

Survived the first day with the typical computer hassles and initial meetings. Well, I’m still not exactly sure what I will be doing here, but I have a slightly better idea now. At least I found out that I’m this multi-talented, versatile computer whiz who can solve any programming problem and has the answer to any technical question. Also, my skills with statistical analysis are outstanding. Well, I never got the memo about that 🙂 But I can very well try my best.

Now that I think of it, it’s encouraging. If people expect a lot from you, it means they believe in your abilities. Or at least they say so, which is really the same thing, since no one can read minds.

The team spirit seems to be great, although they don’t have coffee breaks the way we do. However, everyone gathers for lunch together in the lab. They said that they used to eat lunch at their desks. But what do you know? Then they heard the alarming results of some studies saying that such behavior leads to weight gain. It’s real nice that at least some people follow the practice-what-you-preach principle 🙂 They also pack healthy lunches: salads, carrots, grapes, and so on. My cafeteria-bought tofu scramble was all right, but very lacking in fruits and vegetables in comparison to others’ dishes.

Feels like a healthy place for body, mind and spirit. And based on the lab meeting, it seems that they are really making an impact on population-level. Of course, they are working very hard to achieve that, and changes don’t happen instantly. But makes me want to contribute and bring some of the stuff back home as well.