It is safe to say that during the decades in which obesity has become an epidemic in the United States, the human gene pool has not been concomitantly altered. Thus, although biology and heredity do play a role in susceptibility to obesity and obesity-related disorders, the social, behavioral, and environmental contributions cannot be overlooked if effective prevention and treatment strategies are to be designed. Dr. Powell-Wiley focuses her research on the social determinants of obesity and obesity-related cardiovascular risk factors that contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Powell-Wiley has two interrelated research programs. First, she and her colleagues use epidemiologic methods and geographic information systems to understand the socioeconomic, psychosocial, and environmental factors that promote adverse weight gain and incident cardiovascular risk factors in multi-ethnic, population-based cohorts. Environmental factors include the level of built-in resources available to a community, but they also encompass psychosocial factors such as perceptions of neighborhood environment. She then works to translate findings from these epidemiologic studies into community-based interventions targeting barriers to health behavior change for at-risk populations.
As an advocate and physician scientist, Dr. Powell Wiley has spearheaded the development of a community-based cardiovascular health behavior intervention in the greater Washington D.C. area, specifically addressing key social determinants of obesity. Dr. Powell-Wiley has made it a priority to target specific Washington D.C. wards where obesity and cardiovascular disease are most prevalent. She has intentionally built relationships with key leaders in the community, especially within the faith-based community, in order to advocate for and help implement programs involving these populations. The Powell-Wiley lab is grounded in the principles of community-based participatory research which aided in designing and executing the Washington, D.C. Cardiovascular Health and Needs Assessment. The information gathered from this assessment was paramount in learning about the population in order to implement culturally relevant, effective interventions which address the unique needs of individuals living in urban, limited-resource environments.
Given the multidisciplinary nature of her work, Dr. Powell-Wiley benefits from the advice of colleagues at the National Cancer Institute who study geospatial environment and health in the context of cancer. One-size-fits-all public health approaches to the obesity epidemic have not proven effective; Dr. Powell-Wiley’s hope is that through a better understanding of how socioeconomic, psychosocial, and environmental factors impact obesity as a cardiovascular risk factor, she can develop interventions tailored to community-based environments.