By Tirthankar Sinha, Ph.D., May 27, 2021
Our theme for the UTHealth Featured Postdocs for May is “National Physical Fitness & Sports Month and Huntington’s Disease Awareness Month” and we are celebrating the works of two of our talented postdocs: Dr. Jacob Szeszulski and Dr. Rocio Diaz Escarcega.
Physical activity and nutrition in youth are extremely critical to ensure proper physical and mental health and development. For this to efficiently happen, there needs to be well-planned policies and structured programs to track the progress of various individuals and address everybody’s needs equitably in school- and community-based setups. Many evidence-based programs exist to improve youth physical activity and nutrition, but there are also many challenges to putting these programs into practice. Dr. Jacob Szeszulski is a postdoc at the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences in the School of Public Health at UTHealth. He works under the mentorship of Dr. Deanna Hoelscher and focuses on identifying barriers that prevent schools and other community-based organizations from using such evidence-based programs. He also helps in co-creating strategies with community partners to help them overcome these barriers.
For example, classroom teachers do not deliver most physical activity programs and they face novel challenges when doing so following COVID-19. Challenges include identifying/creating socially distanced physical activities, delivering online classes, and competing with academic programs for time and resources. To overcome these challenges, Jacob collaborates with school stakeholders to conduct a needs assessment, identify actions that overcome barriers, and create resources that provide support in delivering effective physical activity programs. Recently, as part of a collaborative team effort, Jacob has helped develop a youth-specific physical activity framework that classifies the timing, means, and setting of youth physical activity. They have also identified barriers, facilitators, and tasks that affect the adoption and implementation of classroom-based physical activity programs, such as brain breaks (https://brain-breaks.com/) and active learning labs (https://www.youthfit.com/abl). By identifying the challenges preventing implementation of these types of programs, they can create strategies that will help improve their delivery in the future, and subsequently, increase children’s total minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.
Jacob’s goal is to help reduce disparities in youth’s health behaviors and subsequent health outcomes by understanding policies, systems, and environments that affect youth physical activity and nutrition. Furthermore, Jacob seeks to identify organizational and contextual factors that affect the delivery of school- and community-based programs by using community-based participatory research approaches.
Shifting the focus to our other featured postdoc, Dr. Rocio Diaz Escarcega works on a debilitating disorder called Huntington disease (HD) in Dr. Andrey Tsvetkov’s lab in the Department of Neurology, McGovern Medical School, at UTHealth. HD is an incurable disease and one of the most common inherited neurodegenerative disorders. It is characterized by involuntary movements, personality changes, and dementia, and results in death 10–20 years after the appearance of symptoms. HD is caused by the expansion of a polyglutamine stretch in the huntingtin (Htt) protein, leading to neuronal dysfunction and neurodegeneration. Polyglutamine expansion primarily leads to degeneration of the striatum, but the cortex also becomes affected as the disease progresses. Because of its effect on neurons in specific regions of the brain, this disease has an impact on a person’s functional abilities such as movement, behavioral, and psychiatric disorders.
Rocio has been part of a study where Tsvetkov’s lab is using a mouse model of HD to better understand the pathogenic mechanisms. They have demonstrated that sphingosine kinase 2 (SK2) is a protein that is hyperphosphorylated and overactive upon HD incidence and that inhibition of SK2 mitigates the protein that causes the disease. Rocio’s goal is to understand whether and how to manipulate SK2 to slow down or mitigate HD initiation and progression and gauge the potential of SK2 as a therapeutic target to treat HD.
Describing their time at UTHealth, Jacob says he has learned a lot via collaborations and grant writing workshops, while Rocio is highly appreciative of the diverse backgrounds of the people at the BRAINS Research Laboratory and its training. In her own words, Rocio says, “This is allowing me to learn different techniques and collaborate with them so that everybody can learn from each other and grow together”. Jacob has multiple associations across the entire UT-System: Dr. Kevin Lanza, a post-doc at UT-Austin, and Jacob recently published a paper on the Youth Physical Activity Timing, How, and Setting Framework; Dr. Sharice Preston, a post-doc at UTHealth-Houston, and Jacob recently developed a grant-writing workshop for pre-and post-doctoral students in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Science; Post-docs in the T32 Cancer Control and Research Training program – Drs. Katie Janda, Dale Mantey, Sharice Preston, and Jacob– take a course with pre-doctoral students where they review each other’s work, engage in professional development, and continue to provide support in advancing research products. He is very thankful to UTHealth and says, “The resources and opportunities at UTHealth have expanded my repertoire of research, teaching, and service skills and prepared me for my transition to an Assistant Professor position at Texas A&M Agrilife starting September 1st, 2021."