College mourns the loss of acclaimed researcher

June 3rd, 2019

It is with sadness that we announce that Dr. Leann L. Birch passed away on May 26 in Durham, N.C.; she was 72 years old.

Birch was a former Distinguished Professor of Human Development & Family Studies and Director of the Center for Childhood Obesity Research in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University. Most recently she was the William P. “Bill” Flatt Professor in the department of foods and nutrition and director of the Obesity Initiative at the University of Georgia.

Leann was among the first scientists to bring a developmental science perspective to the study of pediatric nutrition, and throughout most of her career, she held joint appointments in academic units reflecting this unique interdisciplinary lens.

She received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from California State University, Long Beach, in 1971, and master's and doctoral degrees in psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1973 and 1975, respectively.

In 1976, Birch joined the faculty of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in the department of human development where she spent 16 years establishing her renowned research program and advancing through the ranks to become professor and chair, as well as professor of nutritional cciences.

In 1992, she became professor and head of the department of human development and family studies at Penn State, titles she held for more than a decade, along with an appointment in the Graduate Program of Nutritional Sciences.

In 2003, Birch was named Distinguished Professor of Human Development. In 2004, she became a professor of Pediatrics and of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State and director of the Center for Childhood Obesity Research. In 2014, she joined the department of foods and nutrition at the University of Georgia and was subsequently named the director of the campus-wide Obesity Initiative.

Birch was a pioneer in the study of children’s eating behaviors, and was internationally renowned.

She was the author of more than 250 publications (with more than 51,000 citations) and was awarded more than $30 million in federal research funding.

Her research set the course for an entire field of study on the development of food acceptance patterns and behavioral controls of food intake from infancy through adolescence.

Landmark studies from her lab were numerous and included a host of experiments that were among the first to establish the effects of repeated exposure, associative conditioning, social influences, portion size and energy density on young children’s food preferences and regulation of food intake.

Later in her career, she conducted a 10-year longitudinal study of girls’ eating behavior, with a focus on the emergence of weight concerns, dieting and problems of energy balance, including childhood obesity and disordered eating. This research included an examination of predictors of eating behavior, including parents’ child-feeding practices and consequences of these behaviors on child weight and dieting practices.

This work and earlier studies from Birch's laboratory were highly influential in launching what has become a major field of study on the role of parents and other caregivers in shaping children’s eating behaviors and growth. In fact, much of the literature linking controlling child-feeding practices to eating and weight outcomes comes from her extensive studies and from scientists she mentored.

In the last decade, Birch's work has advanced the science of early obesity prevention. More than four decades of seminal experimental and longitudinal findings from her laboratory have been used to develop successful, evidence-based childhood obesity prevention programs.

Among those showing promise is an intervention from her laboratory that targeted maternal caregiving around feeding, sleeping, and crying in early infancy — an approach which proved to be effective in preventing excessive infant weight gain and reducing the prevalence of overweight from infancy into early childhood.

Birch was active in research up to the last weeks of her life. Her research with collaborators at Penn State, which continues, is investigating the effects of responsive feeding interventions on body mass index into childhood. In addition, her work at the University of Georgia, also continuing, is investigating the effect of responsive parenting and sleep on rapid weight gain among African-American infants.

Birch was a trailblazer — she was often many steps ahead of the field in the ideas she pursued and the innovative methods she used to answer scientific questions. The unique blending of developmental psychology and nutrition in her work transcended a single disciplinary home, and moved the field forward to recognize the need for transdisciplinary approaches to address the complex nature of human eating behavior and health.

The profound public health impact of Birch body of research is reflected in the numerous policy and position statements from leading scientific and professional bodies that draw from her work, including the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Eating Research program, to name a few.

Reflecting her outstanding contributions to science, Birch held numerous prestigious, national leadership positions in the field. From 2003-05, she was a member of the Committee on Prevention of Obesity in Children and Youth at the Institute of Medicine. She was the chair of the Committee on Obesity Prevention Policies for Young Children at the Institute of Medicine from 2009-11. She also served as a member of the Committee on Childhood Obesity Prevention at the Institute of Medicine.

Birch was the recipient of numerous awards, most notably, the 2013 Pauline Schmitt Russell Distinguished Research Career Award and the 2011 Leadership in Outreach Scholarship Award from the College of Health and Human Development at Penn State. She also received the 2012 E.V. McCollum Award from the American Society for Nutrition, the 2010 Bar-Or Award for Excellence in Pediatric Obesity Research from The Obesity Society, and the 2003 Faculty Scholar Medal for Outstanding Achievement in Social and Behavioral Sciences from Penn State. She was named a Fellow of the American Society for Nutrition in 2011.

Birch was more than a researcher and scientist. Over her more than 40-year career, she mentored over 70 graduate students and junior faculty as both a trusted advisor and an inspiration. Her concern for guiding individuals into successful careers, while helping them maintain healthy and balanced lives, made her a beloved teacher, colleague and friend.

She also trained her mentees to become mentors themselves, a practice perhaps best exemplified by her receipt of a $4.5 million grant from the USDA to develop an interdisciplinary graduate program in childhood obesity prevention to train the next generation of scientists.

Her philosophy was to give students independence, allowing them to stumble, but to always be close enough to catch them before they fell too hard. Her tough love approach made her students stronger and resulted in many being leaders in their own right.

As students transitioned to post-doc and faculty positions Birch would always say with a nurturing smile, “You are ready to take the training wheels off.” Her legacy will continue through the research family that she trained over the past four decades.

Birch was also a huge advocate for women’s health and rights. While at Penn State, she advocated for the establishment of breastfeeding/lactation support rooms across University Park campus and several Commonwealth campuses to help support breastfeeding mothers once they return to work. There are currently 25 lactation stations at Penn State because of those efforts. In addition, she contributed to the establishment of the NIH-funded Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health award, which was designed to provide support for the development of early career, female scientists.

Birch is survived by her beloved husband, Karl Newell, their two children, Charlotte and Spencer, and her adored Labrador Retrievers. Many of her favorite times were spent at her beach home in North Carolina or traveling with family. She had recently taken steps to retire from academia and was looking forward to making many more memories at the beach and beyond.

She will be deeply missed and remembered for her quick wit, phenomenal sense of humor, warm smile, brilliant and creative intellect, compassionate nature and invincible spirit.

Her family has asked that anyone wishing to make a contribution in her memory consider the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Planned Parenthood, or donations may be made in her name to The Obesity Society or American Society for Nutrition to fund graduate student research efforts.

Categories: Foods and NutritionGraduateResearchHealthNutrition
Tags: uga, obesity initiative, leann birch, childhood obesity

In this category: Nutrition