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Meet the Grantee: Dani Arigo

From Twitter to Physical Activity Research Across the Pond –
An Interdisciplinary German-US Collaboration in Digital Health and
​Science Communication

Personalized medicine research not only relies on curative breakthroughs, but also on understanding our habits and everyday behavior. Short Term Grantee Dr. Danielle (Dani) Arigo and her Bayreuth host Junior Prof. Dr. Laura König, Public Health Nutrition, discuss the importance of refining methods to measure physical activity for disease prevention and the complex role of researchers today.

What are the foci of your joint research funded by the Short Term Grant?

Dani Arigo: Much of my work focuses on women in midlife (ages 40-60) with risks for cardiovascular disease. Worldwide, this is a large population for whom increasing physical activity (PA) has many health benefits. We have many PA promotion interventions for this group, but these aren’t very effective. We’re investigating how PA occurs in women’s daily lives and what predicts changes in PA, to identify new intervention targets - particularly those that can be used in digital health interventions.

Laura König: To do this, you need accurate measurements of PA in the real world. PA assessments are susceptible to measurement reactivity, or people changing their behaviour because they are being measured. If people behave differently when they participate in a study compared to their daily lives, the conclusions we can draw from their data are limited. My recent work focuses on understanding measurement reactivity, and we’re applying that to the population of interest to Dani. The goal of our project is to examine PA measurement reactivity in this at-risk group; specifically, to indicate how large the effect is and whether certain aspects of PA such as steps or minutes of exercise are more affected.

In what way is your work interdisciplinary, and what does interdisciplinarity mean to you in academic work and life?

DA: We both work in the field of digital health, which is highly interdisciplinary. To design effective digital health interventions, it’s crucial to bring together researchers with different expertise, such as psychologists to create effective behavior change content and computer scientists to build the tool in an engaging way. But contributions from other specialties also may be useful (e.g., medicine, nutrition). We spend a lot of time working through challenges such as language barriers between disciplines and divergent priorities, to end with a digital solution that harnesses the best of each perspective.

LK: Accordingly, the outcomes of our project are relevant to a range of disciplines. Measuring PA with digital devices is very popular not only in psychology, but also in other behavioural and social sciences such as sports science.

What is in your opinion the future of physical activity research and the role of psychology, and in what way can research on PA contribute to meet the urgent challenges of our time?

DA: Regular PA is crucial for the prevention of leading causes of death worldwide (e.g., cardiovascular disease, cancer). But it’s difficult to promote sufficient PA; there are many social, environmental, and psychological influences on PA, and these differ both between people and within people over time. The latter is particularly important to the future of PA research. We’re moving toward understanding how PA fluctuates within people on small time scales (such as hours or days, rather than between people over longer periods - the traditional approach), and we’re using technology to capture PA in real time. These advances are critical to fully understanding PA behavior change processes.

LK: Psychology can contribute in two main ways: (1) we apply rigorous scientific methods to understanding the problem and evaluating potential solutions, and (2) many of our professionals are experts in the science of (health) behavior change, which increases the likelihood of identifying useful approaches to promoting PA.

What, in your opinion, is the role of a researcher in society?

DA: In the health sciences, researchers have many roles. A primary role is to learn, use, and promote rigorous methods to advance knowledge that will improve quality of life and reduce mortality from preventable causes. Related to this is our role as communicators within and across fields, to share insights, and that will allow us to keep moving forward (in publications, conference presentations, webinars). We’re also teachers and mentors with responsibilities to the next generation, so that knowledge generation and dissemination continue.

LK: It is also important to us to make the research process accessible to lay people to demystify it. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that, unfortunately, many people do not have a good understanding of science and how scientists generate knowledge. Interaction with lay people is important to show them what science really is - why scientists sometimes disagree, that results are often not clear, and that changing opinions and positions is part of the process.

What does international research mobility mean to you?

LK: Exchanging ideas with colleagues from all over the world is an important aspect of research, and one that I enjoy very much. Sadly, as we have noticed throughout our collaboration, there is not much exchange between the two sides of the pond in health psychology. This leads to different teams working on similar topics, but not necessarily being aware of the findings of others. For example, it is often expensive and not environmentally friendly to attend conferences on another continent. Opportunities like the Humboldt Centre’s Short Term Grants are a great way to stimulate exchange and lay the foundation for long-term collaboration.

DA: I have collaborations across the US, but funded opportunities for international collaboration are rarer in the US behavioral sciences than in the humanities and arts, and I’m realizing how much we miss. For me, this Short Term Grant was a unique opportunity to expand my network, extend the scope of my research, and contribute to Laura’s rapidly growing research program at the University of Bayreuth. We’ve made great progress toward these goals during my stay, and it’s solidified my interest in pursuing international collaborations (including more work with Laura!) and to seek similar opportunities for my trainees.

And how did the current challenges influence your cooperation?

DA: Our collaboration started on Twitter! We were aware of each other’s work through Twitter posts and I jumped at the chance to apply for a Short Term Grant when Laura posted about it. We’re fortunate that tools such as Zoom and Google Docs allowed us to start sharing ideas, despite the 6-hour time difference (which can make it difficult to find times for meetings and co-working). And the pandemic canceled our opportunity to meet in person prior to my visit, at an international conference.

LK: We were very happy to finally meet in person. Although digital tools help, it is so much easier to discuss ideas when you can look at the same screen, whiteboard, or piece of paper. Spending a longer time together also allowed us to generate new ideas that we didn’t outline in the original proposal. Sadly, during the visit, it was not possible to meet many people in person. And the planned talk had to take place online - but that also meant that we could discuss the initial results of our project with a broad international audience.

The Grantee and her Host

Dr. Dani Arigo is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Rowan University in the US. She also holds appointments at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University and Rowan School of Osteopathic Medicine. Her research focuses on understanding time-sensitive influences on health and health behaviors (with particular emphasis on social perceptions, women’s health, and physical activity), and is funded by the US National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Laura M. König is Junior Professor of Public Health Nutrition at the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Bayreuth. Her research focuses on uncovering the psychological underpinnings of health behaviors. She completed her Ph.D. in Psychology at the University of Konstanz in 2018. Before joining UBT in 2020, she was a postdoctoral fellow funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) at the University of Cambridge.

Mirjam Horn-Schott


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