Rachel Kimbro: Partnering with the Media to Share Important Findings on Childhood Obesity

Rachel Kimbro is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Rice University. As a Health & Society scholar, her knowledge exchange project involved disseminating her work on early childhood weight problems to the media. You can find the article she discusses, Racial and ethnic differentials in overweight and obesity among 3-year-old children (AJPH, 2007, 97(2): 298-305), here.

Why did you decide to participate in a knowledge exchange project at UW-Madison?

Our site was really, really big on that. We talked about it quite a bit, although then I think we called it knowledge transfer. It wasn’t so much couched as, “Hey, talk to the community about their needs.” It was more about communicating scientific findings to the public. I guess I was influenced by and convinced by our site directors that it was something we should do. I think it’s just something they really valued.

Did you have any fears about doing this?

I realized that some of the stuff from my articles actually did have broader meaning for society. That’s why I’m doing it in the first place.

I was worried because I wasn’t sure that I had enough to say. I wasn’t sure that I had a message I wanted to get out there. But the site directors, and honestly some of the media training stuff from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that we did, convinced me otherwise. I realized that some of the stuff from my articles actually did have broader meaning for society. That’s why I’m doing it in the first place. Then I started thinking about how to distill my work into smaller, media-friendly components. I had no experience with it. It was not something we ever talked about in graduate school. I can’t even remember it ever coming up.

What was the work you talked to the media about?

I had a paper come out during my second year that was about three year olds’ race and ethnic differences in weights. It was one of the first papers to show weight issues happening really early in a child’s life, so it got quite a bit of media attention. It had been shown in school age kids, but then we were able to show it in these preschoolers. It was part of the childhood obesity craze going on at that time. I did a lot of different media interviews for that. The Daily Show actually ran a little segment on it. It was called Fat Babies. They didn’t interview me, but they talked about my work. It was very exciting.

How did you get the media to pay attention? Did you reach out to them or did they find you?

They found me. I didn’t reach out to anybody. But I think the Foundation helped me hone my 30-second spiel. And they may have coordinated the media stuff that I did.

Was this the first time that you were talking to the media about a big paper?

Yes. It was stressful, and they worked on such tight deadlines, which was weird to me in academia. I would have to respond all hours of the day, and that was definitely challenging. I had done a whole 2-day media training with RWJF already, so that was very helpful. I knew I wanted to have my main points and keep returning to them, but it was hard not to veer off, especially if the questioner was trying to get me to go in a different direction. So trying to decide what I was comfortable saying in terms of what we knew about the science—that was definitely challenging. Subsequent experiences have been easier because I had that experience.

What was the best part of this experience?

My grandmother was super excited that I was in The New York Times. It was cool, it was the first time my family and friends sort of understood what I was doing.

What was the worst part?

Feeling overwhelmed when it kept getting picked up and people kept calling and wanting to talk to me. It felt a little bit like things were spinning out of control. When you talk to the media like that, you have no control. You can control what you say, but what they do with what you say—you might be misquoted, they could take it in a different direction, they could publish something attacking your work.

Do you think any tangible changes resulted from this work?

When Michelle Obama announced that this was going to be her big issue when her husband came into office, I remember thinking that my one little paper was probably one tiny part of that. That was exciting.

I think this was one piece among many that really pushed the attention of health scholars, and frankly the country, toward weight problems in children. When Michelle Obama announced that this was going to be her big issue when her husband came into office, I remember thinking that my one little paper was probably one tiny part of that. That was exciting.

If you could do the project over, what do you wish you had known to begin with?

I think I could have been better prepared to have my two or three talking points and stick to them. I’m such a people pleaser that if a reporter was trying to steer me in a particular direction, it was very hard for me not to go there with them. It feels a little confrontational to have your talking points and stick to them, and that’s hard for me. I wish I had been a little bit better at that.

What effect did your involvement in this project have on your career?

It taught me a lot. I came into my tenure track position with a better handle on what to do when I was contacted by a reporter, how to prepare for an interview. It oriented me toward a policy and advocacy route in ways that I think have been important to me.

Working with the site directors and RWJF people helped me figure out how to craft a message, and that’s been really, really useful. Especially working in Texas, which is a really tough policy environment for environmental concerns, for child advocacy concerns. It’s a tough red state here, and that crafting of the message and figuring out how to do it in a palatable way has been really useful to me here.

The scope of what I saw as my job as a scientist definitely changed. I started to see advocacy as something that I should do and something that I liked doing.

And this is sort of more personal, but when I got tenure, and I think this is actually kind of common, I felt like I didn’t know what to do next. I’d been working for so long to get that, and I had it, and I was kind of like, “Woah, now what?” That’s a scary feeling for someone that’s driven and has goals. I was able to say, “I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, but I’m going to add in some more advocacy work.” That was really helpful for me because it kind of reminded me why I’m doing what I’m doing. I get more fulfillment out of that stuff than I do writing another incremental paper.

The scope of what I saw as my job as a scientist definitely changed. I started to see advocacy as something that I should do and something that I liked doing.

Are knowledge exchange projects a permanent part of your career now?

They’re a big part of my career now. I am pretty involved in the children’s health advocacy and policy community in Texas. I do a lot of talks, mostly for nonprofit audiences or their donors.

I work with the food bank in Houston, often speaking to their board about food insecurity or helping them think through policy or data issues. I also work with a local nonprofit called Children at Risk, which is a Texas child advocacy organization. They do lobbying, basically, on behalf of our children to the state legislature and our governor. They usually pick three policies they’re going to target in each legislative session, so I often help them do some science in the background or sort of tell them what the science is showing on particular things.

At Rice, we have a Kinder Institute for Urban Research, and my Urban Health program is part of that. One of the things we try to do twice a year is a legislative briefing on a particular topic. So we’ve done one on childhood obesity, we’ve done one on food insecurity. We partner with local organizations that are working in the same area, and we bring in staffers of local elected officials, as well as state elected officials. Sometimes the officials themselves will come, and we talk about the science around certain policies. Those have been pretty successful.

Also, I have had several grants where part of the expectation was some knowledge exchange activities. So now that funders are starting to build that in, I think it’s becoming more expected.

It’s also self-serving in some ways because the connections that I can build doing that kind of work can be useful to me as well in different kinds of scenarios—placing undergraduates in internships, or creating research opportunities for my PhD students, for example. I think some of my colleagues think that I waste my time doing this, but I don’t think it is a waste of time, most of the time.

What was the most important thing you learned about communicating with nonacademics?

Often the people you are talking to don’t care about the tiny details the way we do. They want to know the punch line. It can be hard for us to step back from nuance to distill what the one-sentence summary of the paper is because nuance is what we do.

Often the people you are talking to don’t care about the tiny details the way we do. They want to know the punch line. It can be hard for us to step back from nuance to distill what the one-sentence summary of the paper is, because nuance is what we do. It’s impossible for academics to summarize their work in one sentence. So knowing that’s what reporters want, that that’s what the public wants, and then kind of figuring out how your work can speak to that is important. Also figuring out what the overall message of your work is. If you can figure that out, I think it is helpful for motivation as well, to keep you going.

What type of scholars do you think should engage in knowledge exchange?

I think some people are going to be better at it than others. Some people are going to like it more than others. I have a close collaborator who I work with a lot, and he can’t stand doing this stuff. It’s just not his thing. So I think you have to have some kind of affinity for it if you’re going to do it.

But in general, I think I would say it should be part of what scientists do. I think it’s something that we should be thinking about. When I’m writing the discussion sections in my articles, I always think, “What are the policy implications? What are people going to take from this?” I try and anticipate what people might take out of my papers and maybe change how I talk about the findings depending on what I think might happen.