Learning by trial

Emerging team grant paved the way for national study on pediatric obesity

Geoff BallAs a rookie scientist, Dr. Geoff Ball had some pretty big shoes to fill as the principal investigator—or PI—of an emerging team research grant for pediatric weight management.
The three-year, $300,000 grant was awarded by the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute and the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry to high-calibre, new research teams with the potential to advance important women and children’s health issues and succeed in larger-scale funding competitions. His team was one of the first recipients of the award. Winning it was a big and, as Ball puts it, “lucky” catch for the young academic and researcher. He was able to eventually leverage the funding into a national study on child obesity with collaborators from six major Canadian universities.
“I had a steep learning curve,” says Ball, who is the director of the Pediatric Centre for Weight and Health at the Stollery Children’s Hospital and a professor in pediatrics at the University of Alberta. “The team grant was a really important stepping stone. It allowed me to gain the necessary skills and experience to succeed in building research collaborations on a national level.”
The 2009-2012 WCHRI grant enabled Ball and his team of 12 researchers to evaluate weight management interventions for parents of children with obesity, which are now used at the Stollery Children’s Hospital and several other centres in Canada. Parents as Agents of Change©, or PAC, was designed to help parents and families to establish healthier living habits. The program is based on cognitive behavioural therapy and up-to-date research in children’s nutrition and physical activity. With additional WCHRI innovation grant funding, Ball and his team also developed Conversation Cards©, a tool that families and health care professionals can use to talk about weight management in a constructive, non-judgmental way.
“The stigma related to mental health has diminished in recent years, but negative attitudes regarding obesity remain pervasive,” says Ball.
“We know a great deal about the prevalence of obesity and weight-related risk factors for chronic diseases,” says Ball. “But more research is needed to develop effective interventions, especially for children and youth with severe obesity,” he notes. Ball is currently leading a $1.6 million, five-year team grant in six Canadian cities on severe pediatric obesity, which has proven to be resistant to most conventional therapies. The study is funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions, the Canadian Obesity Network and the Ontario Ministry of Health and Longterm Care.
“Our national team grant is an incredible opportunity to advance the science in understanding and managing severe obesity in Canadian children,” he says. “We’ll learn a number of things over the coming years that will help us to prioritize health services for those children with obesity who are at highest health risk and in greatest need for support from their families and health-care professionals.”
Ball’s research has been funded by the generous support of the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through WCHRI.