Scientist to examine liver disease in adolescents
Arnold School of Public Health researcher Jennifer Trilk is the recipient of a postdoctoral fellowship award from the National Institutes of Health to study non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) in young people.
The two-year, $106,010 award will enable her to study a growing public health concern that affects 8 percent of U.S. adolescents and has the potential for serious medical complications later in life.
The study is important on its own merit, but the fellowship also is recognition that the NIH considers Trilk to be a promising scholar with the potential to become a productive and successful independent researcher.
The awards program, named in honor of NIH researcher Ruth L. Kirschstein, was created to "help ensure that a diverse pool of highly trained scientists are available in adequate numbers and in appropriate research areas to address the nation's biomedical, behavioral, and clinical research needs."
Trilk works in the Children’s Physical Activity Research Group, which operates under the wing of the Department of Exercise Science. She is part of a team dedicated to expanding the body of knowledge on physical activity and its promotion in children and adolescents.
Trilk's study will analyze data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), an ongoing program of studies designed to assess the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States.
NAFLD, an accumulation of fat in the liver of a person who drinks little or no alcohol, is accompanied by an abnormally elevated liver enzyme, known as alanine aminotransferase (ALT). An ALT test measures whether the liver is damaged or diseased.
Because elevated ALT levels and NAFLD are associated with serious medical complications in adults, including the metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease, it is a public health priority to initiate interventions at an early age, Trilk said.
“Studies suggest that chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease may actually begin in childhood,” she said. “Also, many of the health behaviors youth exhibit, such as being physically inactive, track into adulthood, adding to the risk of chronic disease.”
Increased participation in physical activity and greater cardiorespiratory fitness are associated with lower ALT levels in adults; consequently, experts recommend physical activity as a first line of defense for prevention and treatment of NAFLD.
However, no studies have examined this relationship in youth. Trilk's study is the first to examine the associations of physical activity, cardiorespiratory fitness and ALT levels in a large subset of adolescents that are representative of the U.S. population.
The end result will provide information for promoting policies to increase physical activity and reduce NAFLD in youth.
An Iowa native, Trilk has an academic background in animal science, specializing in equine exercise physiology. She earned a bachelor's degree in animal science from Iowa State University in 1999 and a master's degree in equine exercise physiology from California State Polytechnic University in 2003. Professionally, Trilk has extensive experience in hematology and blood chemistry analysis for diagnostics of disease in veterinary and human hospital settings.
Trilk’s desire to make a difference in the lives of people suffering from sedentary-related chronic diseases led her to the University of Georgia, where she earned her doctorate in human exercise science in 2009. Shortly thereafter, she joined the Arnold School faculty, taking advantage of the opportunity to work with exercise physiologist Russell Pate.
Trilk said she was impressed with Pate's dedication to working with youth and trying to prevent them from developing diseases as a result of inactivity.
"At this younger age, kids don't understand the negative impact of a sedentary lifestyle on their future health,” Trilk said. “Therefore, it's our responsibility as adults to guide them and to promote a more physically active lifestyle during childhood and adolescence so they can grow up to be healthy, physically active adults.”
Arnold School of Public Health