Q&A with Rei Shimizu, PhD ’21

Rei Shimizu headshotIn her final year in our PhD program, Rei Shimizu was lead author of “A Systematic Review of Psychosocial Nutrition Interventions for Young Adults,” published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. The synthesis of 24 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of psychosocial nutrition interventions in high-income countries involving young adults between ages 18 and 34 suggests psychosocial nutrition intervention programs can increase fruit and vegetable intake in young adults. Rei, who is a Research Assistant for NYU Silver’s Youth and Young Adult Mental Health Group (YYAMH-G), co-authored the paper with her PhD Program mentor, Professor and YYAMH-G Director Dr. Michelle Munson, and PhD student and YYAMH-G Research Assistant Aaron Rodwin.

Among the systematic review’s unique contributions to the literature are its focus on young adult nutrition interventions that target intrapersonal and interpersonal factors across a range of delivery platforms; its identification of a typology of such interventions; and its exposure of the underrepresentation of low-income young adults of color and those not enrolled in higher education in RCTs of psychosocial nutrition interventions.

Rei successfully defended her dissertation in April 2021 and she will join the University of Alaska Anchorage School of Social Work as a tenure-track assistant professor at the start of the Fall 2021 semester. She spoke to NYU Silver about her research and her experience in the School’s PhD program.

How does your recent study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior relate to your dissertation?

Methodologically it’s completely different, but because my long-term goal is to design a nutrition intervention program tailored to improve dietary quality among low-income young adults, it is related.

My dissertation is a secondary data analysis examining the 2007-2008 and 2009-2010 waves of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). That is a combined data set of 3,535 young adults between 18 and 34. I looked at the psychosocial determinants of dietary quality, and particularly at food insecurity, its relationship to dietary quality, and whether it’s mediated by depression as well as food related beliefs and values. 

Is your expectation that the findings from your systematic review and your dissertation will help in your efforts to develop an effective intervention?

Yes, exactly, and to identify those important mechanisms that intervention components should target. An emerging topic right now is the emotional burden of food insecurity and just how much stigma is associated with it. Something that I found in my dissertation is that, in fact, the pathway from food insecurity to dietary quality was fully mediated by depression. That actually matches the qualitative studies that are out there that talk about the heavy emotional burden of being food insecure.

It is notable that none of the studies in your systematic review were conducted by social work scholars. Why do you think it’s so important for social workers to be engaged in food studies and promoting food equity?

The short answer to that is because food is so emotional. It’s attached to social constructs like love; it’s not uncommon for people to use food as a love language. In my clinical work with survivors of trauma, domestic violence, and intimate partner violence, people frequently talk about emotional instances related to food. Actually, I have another paper that is under review right now about the role of food and food behaviors in intimate partner violence and intimate relationships in general, which I’m super excited about! Our personal experiences can really shape our relationship with food, which is such an important marker of health. 

Even in my work with young adults, particularly those with serious mental illness, they talk about how they use food as a mechanism to control their health. Especially in situations where they have nothing else to control or they feel oppressed, they have food to look forward to. So, food is not only about the physiological benefits of nutrition.

The psychosocial component of food is missing a lot of times in food-related health narratives, and I think that there is a need for social workers to address the negative psychosocial impacts that food inequities and dietary disparities can have, particularly food insecurity. I want to help pave the way for social work and social workers to address food inequities and amplify food justice. Also, social workers work with hard-to-reach marginalized populations, and I think we are a gateway to food assistance for many and politically too through community coalition building, we can amplify their voices in the food justice movement. 

Was focusing on food part of your vision when you began our PhD Program?

No. My application letter to the PhD program was completely about domestic violence and intimate partner violence (DV and IPV) and had nothing to do with food. That interest emerged in the intervention course that I took early on with Dr. Munson and Dr. Jennifer Manual. One of them gave us the assignment to write a grant application on a topic that is related to our field. They said “you are early in the program, so just have fun with it.” Since I have always loved food, I thought, how can I incorporate this personal passion with my clinical passion, and that's how my focus on food behavior and food justice emerged.

Why did you choose NYU Silver for your PhD?

I am an international student from Japan. I was initially drawn to NYU Silver by the Center on Violence and Recovery (CVR). I had been emailing Dr. Linda Mills, the Founder/Executive Director, and Dr. Briana Barocas, the Director of Research, about their work even before applying, and I read all of Dr Mills' books on restorative justice, particularly in the field of DV and IPV, which is so relevant to international settings, particularly when separating from your abuser is not an option culturally. So that was my initial pull, but the more I researched NYU the more compelled I was, and once I got the acceptance and was on campus, I was like “oh my gosh, I'm so excited to be here!”

How did you choose Dr. Munson as your primary PhD Program mentor?

Actually, when I started the program, because my focus was on DV and IPV, my faculty mentor was Dr. Jeane Anastas. But once I took that intervention course and started really thinking about food, and the Unified Theory of Behavior, and other theories that Dr. Munson uses, I explained to Dr. Anastas that my goals were switching. We all agreed that Dr. Munson would be a better fit for my new focus so it was an amicable switch. 

I should note that Dr Barocas has also been an important mentor to me. From my start in the PhD program, I have held a part-time job as a Research Assistant at CVR to stay involved in the field of DV and IPV research. 

Has it been your experience that our PhD Program encourages students to have lots of mentors and lots of relationships both within the program and in other disciplines as well?

Yes, and it's amazing. I love that about the program here. 

One of the things I have taken advantage of at NYU Silver is the access to so many different specialties across the University outside of social work. Since NYU Silver does not offer food-related classes, I went outside to the School of Global Public Health (NYU GPH), where I am now a Teaching Assistant, and the Food Studies Program at NYU Steinhardt, which really exposed me to anthropological and sociological food theories that also inform my work. All of those experiences inform my research.

For example, I have a policy paper out, Who Deserves to Eat Well? In the Journal of Poverty, that is  an amalgamation of things I learned in the Food Studies Program as well as in the policy class at Silver. So in writing that, I reached out to a couple of Food Studies scholars I took classes with to help me edit.

Also thanks to Dr. Victoria Stanhope, our PhD Program Director, I have had the opportunity to participate in NYU’s Cross-Cutting Initiative on Inequality.

In addition to finishing your dissertation, you are a Research Assistant for both CVR and YYAMH-G and a TA at NYU GPH. How has the PhD program supported you in being engaged on so many fronts?

Honestly, my mentors really trust me and I trust them. They trust me to reach out to them if I feel like I’m stretched beyond my capacity and I can’t do anymore, and they are always so encouraging. And I also trust them to tell me “Rei, are you sure you want to focus on doing X, Y, and Z?” so that's really been instrumental.

I refer to my mentors as my “Research Mamas” because they really do enrich me in that way. They have paved the path for me to be able to learn, and I think that's the best way to put it. I actually co-authored a publication with Dr. Barocas and fellow CVR research assistants on creating a research family, and research family is a term that I use all the time now to describe my teams because they really are my family.

Because my mentors have been so good to me, my whole mentality is to pay it forward. I also recognize that it takes a village. None of what I do can be accomplished on my own, ever! So I’m always asking “What do you need? How can I help?” to give back in any way that I can.