Pursuing Global Solutions to Childhood Obesity

Curiosity, compassion fuel Dr. Jyu-Lin Chen’s research into a significant health challenge plaguing the US and Asia.

Jyu-Lin Chen, PhD ’02, RN, is motivated by an alarming trend: Around the world – from Taiwan, where she grew up, to the US, with its diverse immigrant communities – childhood obesity is on the rise, with life-altering consequences that can extend into adulthood. 

“If we continue on our current trajectory, this generation is predicted to have shorter life spans than their parents,” Chen says. 

It’s the kind of challenge that calls for an inquiring mind and a caring heart – perfect for Chen, who is equally drawn to the science and care aspects of medicine. “I like to ask why things happen and how to fix stuff,” she says. “But I also enjoy working with people.” As the recipient of a presidential professorship in global health nursing, Chen applies her curiosity and compassion through research that is yielding new knowledge and solutions to address childhood obesity and related health challenges. 

Chen is particularly focused on Asian immigrant communities in the US and on families in Taiwan and China. In the San Francisco Bay Area, her research reveals complex and dynamic issues at work. In addition to the usual challenges – less physical activity, more sedentary time, access to unhealthy foods and drinks, and peer pressure – culture plays a role. 

“We found that children who are less adapted to life in the West are at a higher risk for obesity,” Chen says. Chinese cultural perceptions – for example, that chubby babies are healthy babies – contribute to the risk. 

“Parents and grandparents don’t realize that after a certain age, it’s hard for a child to change habits,” she adds. Her research has led to targeted obesity interventions, including community-center programs for kids and home-based tools, such as tablets loaded with educational modules for mothers who are shopping and planning meals. 

With endowed support from donors, Chen’s scope has expanded to cover type 2 diabetes in China and Taiwan, where 10 percent of the population has been diagnosed with the condition. She is one of the only Fulbright scholars granted government permission to study this urgent health issue in both nations. 

Chen, who directs the UCSF School of Nursing’s Doctor of Nursing Practice program, is also dedicated to helping the nursing profession grow. She is working with a Chinese university to develop a modern curriculum and bring nurses and scientists to UCSF to further their training. 

“My dream is to create a global center for nursing education and research,” Chen says. “We will be able to work with colleagues around the world to improve nurse training, nursing science, and ultimately patient outcomes.” 

Jyu-Lin Chen is the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Presidential Professor of Global Health Nursing. 

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