Marissa Burgermaster: Breaking Down Your ‘Gut’ Feelings On…

Enter Marissa Burgermaster, Ph.D., behavioral nutrition scientist and assistant professor in Dell Med’s Department of Population Health. She and her team are using biomedical informatics to advance our understanding of health and nutrition. Her goal? Personalized tools and data-driven goals to help people manage (and even prevent) chronic disease through diet.

What is the problem you hope to solve, and how did you come to recognize it?

Behavioral scientists widely recognize that eating is the hardest healthy behavior to change. My goal is to make the prevention and management of chronic disease through diet both effective and accessible. While most people have a “gut” feeling about how nutrition relates to health, many people have a difficult relationship with food and diet and are unsure about how to eat to prevent and manage chronic disease.

It’s difficult for people to recognize all the internal and external factors that influence food choice: from taste preferences and marketing to food insecurity and cooking skills, just to name a few. My heart aches when I see patients, especially those with type 2 diabetes, feel guilty and ashamed about a diagnosis of a diet-related chronic disease.

What’s your accessibility solution?

My lab creates nutrition-based interventions that improve systems that support people adopt a health-promoting diet. This is especially important for vulnerable populations, such as historically marginalized communities and women with young children. For example, we developed “Nutri,” software that incorporates data science, nutritional science, and behavioral science to make it easier for clinicians to talk to patients about nutrition in personalized and meaningful ways.

We just finished a successful pilot of “Nutri” at Lone Star Circle of Care, a Central Texas network of clinics serving uninsured and underinsured patients. We are also working with Women’s Health here at UT Health Austin (Dell Med’s clinical practice) to improve nutritional care for pregnant and postpartum women.

What needs to happen, in general, to help people manage their food choices most effectively?

Nutritional interventions barely move the needle when looking at the average effect. Digging into the data, however, provides nuance: In every test, nutritional intervention actually works great for some people, but not all. With millions of surgeries and millions of different people out there, we need ways to match the right surgery to the right person. This is just the kind of problem that requires artificial intelligence and human empathy together to solve.

Everyone eats! However, there are many structural factors that make eating a healthy diet difficult. The world needs to move from a perspective of blaming the individual to one that places responsibility for a healthy diet on a more systemic level.

How are you uniquely positioned in this space?

After completing my PhD. in behavioral nutrition, which explores the reasons behind eating behaviors and how to address them, I received funding from the National Library of Medicine to complete a postdoctoral fellowship and earn a master’s degree in biomedical informatics, which involves using health data to support decision-making in healthcare.

My interdisciplinary training in both of these fields is unique and allows me to use computer methods such as user-centered design, ontology building and machine learning, to develop personalized nutritional interventions. My training in behavioral nutrition in the social ecological model, community engagement, and health disparities is what informs my focus on populations for whom personalized technologies are often not designed.

This novelty is part of Dell Med Voicesa series of profiles highlighting Dell Med people as they work to improve health with a unique focus on our community.

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