Posted September 19, 2007

Robert Whitaker | Professor of public health and professor of pediatrics

Introducing New Faculty …

Robert Whitaker, Ph.D.
Joseph Labolito/Temple University
Professor of public health at the College of Health Professions, professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine and medical director, Center for Obesity Research and Education.

Last stop: Senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., a Princeton, N.J., firm that conducts policy research and surveys in areas including public health, nutrition and early childhood development for federal and state governments, foundations and private-sector clients.

Degrees: M.D. from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore; M.P.H. from University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine in Seattle; B.A. in Chemistry from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

Fall class: “Epidemiology”

Recent research/publications:

Whitaker’s research focuses on preventing childhood obesity. He is interested in the period between conception and school age and in understanding how to encourage parents to take a more active role in obesity prevention for children. “Parents are the policymakers in households, and parents need help in developing household policies to prevent obesity in their children,” Whitaker says. In a forthcoming paper, he studies the link between childhood obesity and neglect.


What made you want to study ways to prevent childhood obesity?

“This interest arose out of my broader interest in understanding the childhood indicators of adult chronic disease. Obesity is a condition that leads to a number of adult health problems, and obesity clearly has its origins in childhood.”

What is the most recent book you’ve read and enjoyed?

Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. He gives a fabulous overview of the emerging field of social neuroscience. He describes why we are “wired to connect” to others and why it is essential for society to cultivate social intelligence in children. This really boils down to teaching children to love themselves and others. This is the most important thing adults can do for children’s health and well-being. Social intelligence acquired during childhood may be the single best inoculation against a variety of chronic diseases over the life course, including obesity.”

Something no one would guess about me:

“My first cousin is the filmmaker John Waters — director of the original movie Hairspray. We have the same grandfather, who was born in a gold-rush village in Alaska in 1898.”

What is your worst habit?

“Being too patient.”

What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

“Spend time with my wife. She is my best friend.”

Do you have any hidden talents?

“I may well have latent artistic talent. I painted as a young child, but I stopped by about age 7. My mother started painting at around age 60 and discovered she had tremendous talent. Painting gave her much peace and happiness in the last decade of her life. I hope I am lucky enough to find a hidden talent like that.”

Do you have a favorite movie?

“I used to watch many movies, but I hardly watch them anymore. The theme of violence seems so pervasive in movies that I no longer find most movies pleasing to watch. In practicing medicine, the impacts of violence on people’s lives became too real for me to watch this as a leisure activity.”

What was the last concert or show that you went to?

“I watched a concert recently on PBS by Vienna Teng. She is a pianist and singer-songwriter who I thoroughly enjoyed. My wife and I bought one of her albums called Waking Hour, and we listen to it all the time. The song ‘Lullaby for a Stormy Night’ is now our daughter’s nightly lullaby.”

Why I chose Temple: “I wanted to work in a place where I could make teaching a more integral part of scholarship. At Temple there seems to be a healthy balance between creating knowledge through research and sharing knowledge through teaching and service. I have always viewed a career in academic medicine and public health as an informal social contract because much of my own education and research have been supported by public funds. I think that contract requires a balance between creating and sharing knowledge. That balance is also what makes scholarship sustainable in our society.”