National Institutes of Health grant to support Higgins’ first-year college health study

The $388K grant will expand student research opportunities in exercise science, statistics programs.

Assistant Professor of Exercise Science Simon Higgins has been awarded a three-year, $388,000 R15 grant from the National Institutes of Health. As principal investigator, Higgins and collaborators will study behavior changes that are associated with long-term health risks and how best to support students as they transition from high school to college.

The project deepens an ongoing collaboration with faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

Assistant Professor of Exercise Science Simon Higgins
Assistant Professor of Exercise Science Simon Higgins

The three-year NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Academic Research Advancement Award will enable researchers to track 150 high school seniors through their first year in college to assess their risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a precursor to cardiovascular disease. The study will measure markers of physical health, such as body composition and arterial stiffness, track students’ lifestyle-related behaviors — physical activity, sedentary time, sleep, diet — using wearable technology and surveys. It will also analyze changes in participants’ psychological, social and environmental conditions.

“The transition to young adulthood is a key period where life-long behavioral habits are formed. Identifying behaviors that are associated with the initial development of cardiovascular disease risk and understanding why these behavioral changes occur will help us to develop interventions for the primordial prevention of cardiovascular risk,” Higgins said.

The study will be the first comprehensive, longitudinal assessment of the relationship between behavior change and metabolic syndrome risk in this population. Outcomes will aid better understanding of the behavioral determinants that lead to metabolic syndrome in early adulthood, the psychosocial and environmental antecedents of these behaviors, and inform intervention strategies for first-year college students.

Collaboration and undergraduate research

Higgins will mentor Elon students and collaborate with an interdisciplinary team of experts from three universities to complete the study. His expertise includes the measurement of lifestyle-related behaviors, body composition and cardiometabolic outcomes.

Collaborators include Justin Moore, Wake Forest School of Medicine associate professor of implementation — who has expertise in behavioral monitoring and behavioral promotion in youth — and Lee Stoner, UNC Chapel Hill assistant professor of exercise physiology — who will guide the team in assessing traditional and novel cardiometabolic risk factors.

At Elon, Assistant Professor of Statistics Mark Weaver will oversee data analysis and reporting efforts using his experience in biostatistics and mentoring Elon undergraduates. Elon University Physician Dr. Ginette Archinal will supervise clinical aspects of the study and train students in clinical techniques.

“Our focus is on improving and broadening access to undergraduate research within our department and across Elon’s campus,” Higgins said. “We will recruit students to be involved with this project by designing their own nested projects. These undergraduate researchers will be involved in all aspects of the grant, from design and recruitment, to data collection. Mathematics and statistics students will also have opportunities to develop projects and to work as statistical consultants, supporting exercise science students’ projects under the mentorship of Dr. Mark Weaver.”

The grant provides access to a more diverse pool of undergraduate mentees in exercise science and statistics through paid research opportunities and includes training that wouldn’t otherwise be available. This training will include exposure to career opportunities in biomedical sciences, including industry and graduate school options.

Alexandra Smith '21 and Assisant Professor of Exercise Science Simon Higgins
Alexandra Smith ’21 and Assisant Professor of Exercise Science Simon Higgins

The study will include at least two cohorts of graduating high school seniors who are heading to colleges across the country, observing them at four points over 15-month periods. Incoming participants will be assessed for baseline metabolic syndrome risk and behavioral characteristics in the spring of their senior year. Remote, follow-up testing will happen in the fall and spring semesters of their first year in college via wearable fitness trackers and questionnaires. In the summer after their first year, participants will return to Elon where their health will again be assessed and compared to baseline data.

Lumen Prize precursor

The study has its roots in Elon’s Lumen Prize.

Higgins mentored Alexandra Smith ’21 in her 2019 Lumen Prize project, “The behavioral determinants of metabolic syndrome risk factor development during the college transition.” That project showed the feasibility of a larger-scale study forming the basis of Higgins’ NIH grant application. Smith and Higgins followed 21 high school seniors for a year to observe physical health and lifestyle changes into their first year of college. Their levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity and sleep quality decreased and their alcohol consumption increased. They have co-authored a paper about the project and submitted it for publication in the International Journal of Exercise Science.

Higgins and Smith also analyzed data from 379 first-year college students at the University of Georgia, where Higgins earned his Ph.D, and assessed their lifestyle-related behaviors and metabolic syndrome risk factors. Their co-authored paper about that study was published in the Journal of American College Health.

The grant and study’s launch will expand immersive undergraduate research opportunities at Elon through training, development, improved research infrastructure and advance opportunities for follow-up studies at Elon.

“We hope that this project will not only provide expanded opportunities for students to get involved in externally funded research right now, but also provide data for subsequent larger grant applications to develop interventions based on our findings,” Higgins said.

Acknowledgement: Research reported in this press release was supported by the National Heart, Lung, And Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R15HL159650. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.