University of Michigan developmental psychologist Alison Miller has devoted much of her professional life to investigating health risks in young children and educating parents on how to circumvent and overcome long-lasting health and behavioral issues.

Her work has led to several long-standing partnerships with early childhood educators in Grand Rapids, Kent County and elsewhere across the state.

As an associate professor in the School of Public Health, Miller’s main areas of focus are childhood mental health, childhood poverty and stress, eating behaviors and obesity.

Miller and colleagues studied childhood obesity among Head Start preschoolers in Kent County and 12 other Head Start agencies across Michigan.

“What we found in this study of over 40,000 children is that among overweight and obese children, those who were in the Head Start program became a healthier weight when they finished the program versus low-income kids not in Head Start,” she says. 

“We don’t exactly know why, but the Head Start program does things like engages parents and works with parents, giving children healthy meals, teaching them about physical health and implementing other routines that promote mental and physical health.”

Miller and other U-M researchers were also awarded $4.9 million in 2011 for a five-year study to identify ways to reduce the prevalence of obesity.

Miller discussed her work in Kent County during a Board of Regents meeting May 19 at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in downtown Grand Rapids.

Phil Hamberg, program director for Head Start in Kent County, says the research was valuable to the Grand Rapids community because of the high risk factors that plague the more than 1,600 children in the Kent County Head Start program.

“We’ve got almost one-third of our population that is overweight or obese. Of that one-third, about half are obese and half are overweight. So when we were invited to join this program — which involved educating teachers, parents and students — we knew it would benefit our community,” he explains.

“Obesity and nutrition are huge issues. You’re looking at all kinds of health issues if you don’t get answers early, and if you extrapolate the data we’ve collected to the broader population, it’s easy to see why so many people deal with diseases like diabetes and other things.”

In addition to her work with the Head Start program, Miller also works with a broad group of diverse stakeholders in Kent County.

In her role as the director of SPH’s Community Outreach and Translation Core, Miller teams with Healthy Homes Coalition, led by Paul Haan; Asthma Network of West Michigan, led by Karen Meyerson; the Kent County Health Department; the West Michigan Environmental Action Council; MI Air/MI Health; the Green Building Association and other groups.

Miller recently worked with these groups to create maps, overlapping with several socioeconomic status variables, showing asthma prevalence among low-income children in Grand Rapids.

An immediate goal of the U-M program she leads is to ensure that research findings and other information involving important children’s environmental health issues are included in the upcoming Community Health Needs Assessment.

“I think a program like Head Start and early Head Start, for ages 0-3 years, takes in the whole ecology of the child and helps the child and the parent. Coupled with other research, programs like it are really important because they act on a lot of things that we know are really positive for childhood development,” Miller says.

Her work is one of several projects that U-M faculty and staff are engaged with in western Michigan. Others include:

Entrepreneurship: Last fall, Grand Valley State University joined the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship to help GVSU students convert ideas into commercially viable products through the Introduction to Customer Discovery Program. The CFE started this program through a “Train the Trainers” grant funded by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Learn more

Aviators: In an effort to make more engineers and potentially keep them in Michigan, the College of Engineering has entered into a unique collaboration with the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a charter high school in Grand Rapids. The agreement was signed last year and is led by Jeanne Murabito, executive director of student affairs at CoE. Learn more

Space: Under the leadership of Alec Galimore, U-M leads the Michigan Space Grant Consortium, which involves partnerships with several institutions across Michigan, including GVSU and Hope College, to encourage interdisciplinary training, research and public service programs related to aerospace. Learn more

Engagement: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy Dean Susan Collins will host a conversation with former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke at the May 31 annual dinner meeting of The Economic Club of Grand Rapids. Learn more