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Nutritional Sciences News & Highlights


Dr. Marissa Burgermaster and Her Work in Behavioral Nutrition


Dr. Marissa Burgermaster is a Behavioral Nutrition Scientist. She completed her undergraduate as a music major and psychology major. She received a Master's in Education and became a teacher and administrator for an elementary and middle school, developing curricula and training teachers. During her time there, she noticed a link between nutrition and students' academic performance and socialization. Through her experience, Dr. Burgermaster was inspired to go back to school to obtain a Master's in Nutrition. She initially intended to become a registered dietitian, but as she was working in a variety of research labs, she realized she could make an impact on the role of food and nutrition in society and health by creating new knowledge. So, Dr. Burgermaster went on to pursue a PhD at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Past and Current Research

While Dr. Burgermaster was at Columbia University, she was working on a USDA-funded, school-based childhood obesity prevention intervention. What she discovered was that students responded differently to the exact same intervention in the same classroom; some kids were motivated and did very well, some had no interest in changing any of their eating behaviors, and some wanted to follow the goal behaviors but faced psychosocial and environmental barriers.

Through her experience, Dr. Burgermaster developed a keen interest in nutrition interventions and wanted to learn how to improve them no matter where they were delivered, which led her to her current interest: technology. She states technology is "where a lot of people are getting their information and motivation about nutrition." She continues on by posing the question "how can we meet people where they are and get them what they need in order to help them achieve their goals, be it improved health or having less of an environmental impact or just enjoying life through food and sharing food with others?"

By completing a post-doctoral fellowship in biomedical informatics at Columbia University, Dr. Burgermaster wanted to help people interpret and gain better insight into their health and nutrition data. She has worked on making data driven nutrition-based technologies more accessible and meaningful and built a smartphone app called Platano, a dietary self-monitoring app for medically underserved patients with type 2 diabetes. During the Platano trial in New York City, one thing that stood out to Dr. Burgermaster was that patients were interested in having their healthcare providers involved in interpreting their diet and blood glucose data. That is why, when Dr. Burgermaster came to UT in 2018, she wanted to find out how she could make it easier for doctors to speak with their patients about nutrition by using their patients' data. Her step forward was developing a tool called Nutri, where the focus was to take a patient's diet data and give doctors the information, they need to discuss nutrition during appointments.

Conducting a pilot trial for Nutri in the summer, Dr. Burgermaster and her team are observing main outcomes such as patients and providers setting a goal together, patients leaving the appointment knowing what their goal is, and patients feeling confident they can work towards that goal. They'll also be checking in with participants a week afterwards to see if they have made any changes to their diets. The secondary outcome is trying to see if doctors feel more confident when talking about nutrition and if they do it more frequently.

Future Research

While Dr. Burgermaster says their current primary interest is getting Nutri off the ground first, she also states they're starting to create a patient-facing software, with the goal of linking it with Nutri and making it more so about how to achieve the goal that patients set with their doctor. One of their key objectives is to make the app accessible and meaningful, so she hypothesizes that "having a doctor involved even just in setting the goal will help tremendously."

Significance of the Research

One of the main goals is to try and take some of the responsibility, burden, and guilt off of individuals with chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes. Dr. Burgermaster describes how people will oftentimes blame themselves for having diabetes because of the lifestyle they've chosen to follow. However, it is not solely an individual's fault, because as Dr. Burgermaster says, "we have to think about how people are treated and what they have access to… if we are able to share the responsibility across the healthcare system in the food system, it will create a shift that is needed in order to build a healthier community and society."

Key Takeaway

Dr. Burgermaster's key takeaway: "The thing that is most important, especially for nutrition students, future nutrition professionals, future medical professionals, or any kind of professionals involved in nutrition, is this idea of just how influential social determinants of health are and that it's not as much about individual choices as we often assume or are led to believe. It's more of the social and environmental context that is what's driving people to eat what they eat. Treating diet as an individual decision in a vacuum is unfair to individuals, but also it does not lead us to solutions that are going to help many people."Enter your text here ...