Why should science matter to our presidential candidates? As you’ll see in the accompanying video,…
We know obesity is a problem in the United States and other countries. So when it comes to young people’s access to fast-food meals during the school day, how close is too close?
Two hundred feet? Two blocks? Two miles?
With degrees in both computer science and biomedical physiology, Giabbanelli conducts research in the areas of computational modeling and “systems science”—an interdisciplinary field that studies the nature of systems. His particular expertise is in developing computer simulations applied to complex health problems.
With funding from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Giabbanelli is leading a pilot project that will assess the impact of fast-food zoning on about 25,000 schools in England, where growing concerns have prompted policymakers to call for restrictions.
“The impact of fast-foods on obesity and food consumption varies over space, and there’s a strong and growing need to estimate the impact of zoning measures,” Giabbanelli says.
For the UK project, the NIU professor has developed a complex simulation model – with precise locations of all the schools and fast food restaurants. The model, a first of its kind, will examine the dynamics related to the impact of proposed regulations. Giabbanelli said he plans to begin running model simulations later this year.
“One change in a complex system can result in unintended consequences in unexpected places,” Giabbanelli adds. “So our model will serve to quantify the expected impacts of regulations, including assessment of their interactions with other policies and features of the landscape. Capturing these interactions is an essential part of bringing a systems-science approach to local regulations.”
Zoning restrictions also are used to promote healthy nutrition in the United States, so the research could be helpful to American policymakers as well.
“Results should provide insights into interesting avenues for regulations in the U.S., but they cannot be directly applied in a different context,” Giabbanelli explains. “That’s because the computer model will simulate the impact of policies by using data from the UK at a very detailed level, such as the exact street network and locations of fast-food outlets. Also, the American landscape and policies are different.”
Giabbanelli is leading a consortium that includes the University of Cambridge (UK), Maastricht University (Netherlands) and Lakehead University (Canada) that seeks to expand the pilot to other countries.
The research efforts represent just one of several exciting developments for the computer science professor in his first year at NIU.
In early June, AcademyHealth, a leading organization serving the fields of U.S. health services and policy research, named Giabbanelli as one of five new Systems Science Scholars who will bring critical research expertise to bear on systems-level challenges affecting the nation’s public health.
“There is great potential for systems science to inform positive changes to the nation’s health care system,” said Kate Papa, director of AcademyHealth’s public and population health program.
The scholarship aims to stimulate systems-level approaches to complex social, behavioral and environmental influences that contribute to ill health in the United States.
Selected from a competitive and diverse pool of applicants, the five scholars received travel stipends to attend this month’s annual research meeting held by AcademyHealth in Boston. They also will have the opportunity to participate in networking events to introduce systems methods and foster collaboration.
Additionally, Giabbanelli has had success at NIU attracting student interest in his work.
Five students are working in his Data Analytics for Complex Health Behaviors lab, and they also are actively pursuing scholarships for their work. Graduate student Magda Baniukiewicz has twice recently been awarded financial support to attend out-of-state research programs given by leading scientists.
Giabbanelli says he will continue to recruit students, including undergraduates.
“There are a lot directions you can take with computer science, and systems science is particularly exciting right now,” Giabbanelli says. “Students can be at the forefront of the field, work with collaborators and help find ways to improve the world.”