Rebecca Hasson recalls clearly the message her postdoctoral adviser at the University of California, San Francisco shared at graduation.

He said that in 50 years of being involved in public health, the national situation had only gotten worse.

He charged the graduates with moving the needle, and Hasson took that charge and ran, almost literally.

“It’s not just about producing new knowledge. While that’s important, you have to disseminate that knowledge out to the community because there are people falling off the cliff, and we have to redesign the road so they don’t keep driving off that cliff,” Hasson said. “I really took that to heart.”

Hasson, associate professor of movement science in the School of Kinesiology and director of the Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory, helped lead an effort to provide resources for and remove barriers to physical activity for children during the pandemic, a glaring need as schools turned to remote learning and students turned to electronic devices over exercise.

Rebecca Hasson, associate professor of movement science in the School of Kinesiology, leads children and others through song, dance and activities in 2018 during the annual MLK Children and Youth Program, which attracts K-12 student participants from school communities throughout southeastern Michigan. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)
Rebecca Hasson, associate professor of movement science in the School of Kinesiology, leads children and others through song, dance and activities in 2018 during the annual MLK Children and Youth Program, which attracts K-12 student participants from school communities throughout southeastern Michigan. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Three of her students — Tiwaloluwa Ajibewa, Lexie Beemer and Anna Schwartz — and teachers and partners around the state helped get the program off the ground last summer.

InPACTatHome aimed to encourage children to exercise at home through free online videos and through a grant expanded to include videos available on Detroit Public Television to serve the hundreds of thousands of children who don’t have internet access at home.

The impact of InPACTatHome has been as far-reaching as it’s been unexpected. Hasson said that since the program launched in July, Google Analytics shows users in every Michigan county, 48 states, two U.S. territories and 27 countries have accessed the roughly 300 exercise and nutrition videos.

With the help of school psychologists and wellness coordinators, it also includes a family engagement toolkit that Hasson hopes makes InPACTatHome a permanent resource after the pandemic ends.

While she said she would not wish the pandemic on anyone, it did emphasize the need to encourage physical activity and stem the health challenges that come with childhood obesity later in life.

“One of the challenges is we all saw we need to pay more attention to our children’s health,” she said. “As life expectancy is starting to decline in part as a function of obesity, our children are the ones being affected by it the most.”

Hasson is the product of an active home. Her father played football for Texas Southern University, and her mother retired after a career as a physical therapist. Raised in California, her twin sister is accomplished in karate, and Hasson moved about as far east from California as it gets to play volleyball and run track at the University of Massachusetts.

She initially wanted to become a physical therapist like her mother, but with no program at U-Mass, she took classes in the field of exercise, physiology and kinesiology thinking she’d only be helping her performance on the court and track.

A class her junior year set the course of her life’s work.

The professor showed a slide of health disparities, and she was struck by the differences in blood pressure by African Americans compared with other ethnicities.

“I said, ‘I’m Black, I exercise, am I going to get high blood pressure?’” she said. “Sarcastically, he says, ‘I don’t know, you should go to grad school to find out.’ So I started grad school and stayed in the field to answer that question.”

Her work in the Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory continues to address that question and others related to opportunities for and barriers to physical activity.

For her part, Hasson stays quite active, both physically and philanthropically. Each year, she and her church members run a half-marathon in Detroit, raising money and awareness for child human trafficking.

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Her mother passed along her passion for quilting, and Hasson has made several that are donated to children in foster care.

“The coolest thing about it is it’s such an important learning experience because you spend six months making a quilt and then you give it away,” she said. “You just know there’s going to be a kid who gets warm and cuddly under a quilt and you helped to contribute to some of their happiness.”

She also enjoys reading and participates in a monthly Zoom “book club” with family members and co-workers.

But her passion is creating opportunities for children to get healthy, no matter their circumstance or location.

“Academic scholarship is important, but my research focuses how we work with the community to improve the health and well-being of children and their families, here in Michigan, here in the United States and globally,” she said.

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out? 

Too many to count but I’d have to say when I walked a young girl home from school after she completed one of our health programs. The next day she gave me a hand-drawn thank you card with a picture of me and her on the cover. It was hilarious because she captured my freckles and Block M sweater that I always wore perfectly. It was a reminder that these moments matter to kids.

What can’t you live without? 

My Bible! I never leave home without it. (Psalm 119:105)

Name your favorite spot on campus. 

My new office! The School of Kinesiology just moved into our new building (formerly the Kraus Natural Science Building) and my office now has a large window and overlooks Hill Auditorium. I couldn’t ask for a better view as my second favorite spot is Hill as I have enjoyed many wonderful events in that building, including graduations.

What inspires you? 

The children and communities I serve. My students and I strive to bring joy into children’s lives through physical activity. It is a privilege to partner with teachers, parents and administrators across the state to improve the health and well-being of Michigan families.

What are you currently reading?

“A Promised Land” by Barack Obama, “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha” by Miguel de Cervantes, and “The Four Winds” by Kristen Hannah.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My parents and twin sister. My parents always encouraged my twin sister and me to be the best version of ourselves and maybe, just maybe, we might have an opportunity one day to change the world.

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