The 2014 Southeastern Conference Symposium, entitled Prevention of Obesity: Overcoming a 21st Century Public Health Challenge, will be held September 21-23 at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta.
The University of South Carolina is the lead institution for this year's event, and the school's administrators have been charged with organizing the program, which this year will critically review the body of knowledge that could guide the development and implementation of a national effort to reduce the obese population.
Dr. Russ Pate, Professor in the Arnold School of Public Health and Director of the Children's Physical Activity Research Group at the University of South Carolina, is the chair of the 2014 SEC Symposium local organizing committee.
In this SEC Symposium Q&A, Dr. Pate provided insight into his role and offered his thoughts on the event and topic.
What are your particular areas of research and focus in your role in the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina?
Dr. Russ Pate: "I have a research team called the Children's Physical Activity Research Group, which is based in the Arnold School of Public Health. Our interdisciplinary group includes faculty, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and staff members who are interested in all elements of physical activity and its impact on the health of children. We are most interested in designing and testing public health interventions focused on increasing physical activity in children; the outcome is absolutely critical for the health of our society. It is obvious that children today grow up in a very different world than today's middle-aged and older group. Our society doesn't require as much physical activity and has a lot of barriers and distractions to physical activity. Our group is interested in understanding physical activity in children, the health impact and fundamentally promoting physical activity so that the next generation of children will be more physically active than kids today."
What has your role entailed as the chair of the SEC Symposium local organizing committee?
Dr. Russ Pate: "We've worked very closely with [SECU Executive Director] Torie Johnson and the group at SEC headquarters. This is just the second SEC Symposium and there was clearly important experience to be gained from the first Symposium last year. We formed a local organizing committee at the University of South Carolina comprised of faculty members, most of who were in the Arnold School of Public Health. We then identified colleagues at each of the other 13 SEC institutions who agreed to serve as members of an advisory board. They recommended persons from their universities to be presenters. The organizing committee took the raw material and reviewed it very carefully before extending invitations. We were very gratified and pleased that we had such a high percentage of persons we invited who agreed to participate. People were excited about the opportunity to participate in an academic enterprise like this one, which is one of the first where we're bringing all SEC institutions together for an academic undertaking."
Why is this year's SEC Symposium topic an appropriate one for collaboration among the SEC's 14 universities?
Dr. Russ Pate: "The obesity issue is a huge public health concern across the country and is a particular concern in the Southeastern states, where our universities are located. We were excited about the opportunity to do an SEC Symposium that addresses a problem that is a severe one in the Southeastern states and highlight an approach to dealing with a problem that needs more attention. Beyond that, we knew many of the SEC institutions have major investments in research and professional activity related to obesity and its prevention. We're excited to bring together colleagues from across SEC institutions to spend a couple of days together sharing our work and discussing approaches that will ultimately lead to new knowledge and better approaches to the prevention of obesity."
It seems the local organizing committee is focused on prevention rather than treatment. Is this an accurate assessment?
Dr. Russ Pate: "The opportunity to focus the SEC Symposium on the prevention of obesity was very important to us. Our observation is that there's an enormous focus in our society on the treatment of obesity that is already established. We know that is an extremely challenging proposition. Our view is that reducing the prevalence of obesity in the population is really only going to occur by preventing its development in the first place. That's the challenge our society has right now. If we look back 50 years to the 1960s, the prevalence of overweight and obesity was much lower than it is today. We have the same basic genetic stock, so it is clear that what has changed is our behavior. We are not able to turn the clock back to 1965, so we have to learn ways of working within the reality of society as it exists today to address the behaviors that need to be addressed in order for us to markedly reduce the percentage of the population that is overweight and obese."
How unique is this event in that it brings together individuals from a number of different academic areas to focus on a single, big-picture issue?
Dr. Russ Pate: "While we worked hard to focus the overall SEC Symposium on the prevention of obesity, the goal was to bring together scholars across a wide range of disciplines. I think that will be one of the keys to solving the problem in the long term. We'll have mini-symposia sessions and presenters that work in fields as diverse as genetics and basic physiology, all the way to community-level intervention, public health policy and everything in between. It is a really unique opportunity to bring together all of the human and intellectual resources that exist across the Conference to attract presenters from that wide range of disciplines. It is a creative way to bring people together and focus on dealing with the problem."
The SEC Symposium's keynote speakers are Nancy Brown, Chief Executive Officer of the American Heart Association, and Dr. Michael Lauer, Director of the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How pleased were you to be able to secure keynote speakers of their caliber?
Dr. Russ Pate: "They were both on our short, short list of keynote speakers who we hoped to attract and we were very excited both accepted the invitation. We were hopeful we would be able to attract two keynote speakers of their stature, one from a very large and influential non-governmental, not-for-profit and one large government agency. If there is one not-for-profit health organization that has had a huge impact on health policy in the country, it is the American Heart Association, and we are thrilled to have Nancy Brown. Michael Lauer and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute have had a huge presence in supporting research on issues related to overweight, obesity and cardiovascular outcomes for a long time. The NHLBI has done major research on physical activity and nutrition, and strategies for improving behaviors for the purpose of enhancing public health. We are pretty excited to get both of them."
This is not your first involvement with the Southeastern Conference, as you previously served as the University of South Carolina's Faculty Athletics Representative. What was your experience as an FAR like?
Dr. Russ Pate: "It was fascinating both from the experience I gained within the institution and within the SEC. I was excited to have the opportunity to work very closely with folks in our department of athletics, in particular the student-athletes. Like all SEC institutions, it's a large institution and in my day-to-day work, I don't necessarily come in close contact with very many student-athletes. In that job, I did have that opportunity and I learned a lot about how an athletics program in a large Division I university like this one really operates. The highlight was working with FARs from other SEC Institutions. I found it to be a very impressive group of people who are clearly concerned about supporting not just the athletic success of the Conference, which is of course remarkable, but who are also very supportive of doing it the right way. That group is comprised of accomplished faculty members who have the utmost regard for academic integrity. I very much enjoyed working with them and the staff members at the SEC."
How supportive has your institution and administration been in your work leading the 2014 SEC Symposium?
Dr. Russ Pate: "Our University has been very supportive. Dr. [Michael] Amiridis, our Provost, and Dr. [Prakash] Nagarkatti, our Vice President for Research, were both really supportive of us submitting an application to plan and lead the meeting, and have continued to be supportive throughout the process. Both of them, as well as President [Harris] Pastides, will be present at the SEC Symposium and very engaged in it. Dr. Pastides, before he was Vice President and later President, was the Dean of the Arnold School of Public Health, so many on the local organizing committee have worked closely with him across his tenure at the University. We know Dr. Pastides is a public health guy and is very supportive of the work that this group has done in planning the SEC Symposium. He, Dr. Amiridis and Dr. Nagarkatti are all very pleased that we have this opportunity."