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Jennette Palcic Moreno
Dr. Jennette Palcic Moreno is a research scientist specializing in childhood overweight and obesity. She is an Assistant Professor of Pediatric Nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine, a Research Member at the Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center, and member of the Children’s Nutrition Research Center Behavioral Nutrition Section, both at Texas Children’s Hospital. Dr. Moreno earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Tulane University and her master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from Louisiana State University; she completed her internship and postdoctoral fellowship in pediatric psychology at Baylor College of Medicine. Her formidable research skills and dedication to unlocking the mysteries of childhood overweight and obesity have won Dr. Moreno numerous grants, including long-term funding from the NIH, and accolades, including the 2019 Young Investigator Award from Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics. Dr. Moreno is a prolific writer whose work has been widely published.
Although Dr. Moreno knew early on that she wanted to serve vulnerable and underrepresented populations—an instinct that solidified while working with children living with HIV/AIDS years ago—she assumed that she would use her advanced clinical psychology degrees to treat patients. But when she accepted a summer internship with Dr. Phillip Brantley at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Dr. Moreno caught the research bug. Studying the effects of a very low-calorie diet, weight-loss medication, and intensive behavior-intervention on outcomes of patients with morbid obesity not only gave Dr. Moreno insight into her own research aptitude, but into how research can meaningfully impact those in need.
Still, Dr. Moreno had her reservations about pursuing a research career: “The message regarding research is that it’s so competitive. People are scared to shoot for research careers because there’s this idea of a cut-throat atmosphere. I wonder if women are particularly put off by this.”
With support from her mentors—whom she deems “hugely important”—Dr. Moreno ultimately decided to follow her gut and innate curiosity. As she progressed in her training, she set her sights on childhood nutrition. “We have to better understand why some kids become overweight or obese and some don’t. Understanding what factors lead to unhealthy outcomes and how to identify kids at risk can prevent obesity from the start,” she says.
Dr. Moreno became particularly interested in why an elementary-school-aged child’s Body Mass Index (BMI) is likely to increase at a faster rate during the summer than during the school year. Although promising, Dr. Moreno suspected that the University of South Carolina’s “structured day hypothesis”—which posits that the school day’s structured access to food and activity keeps BMIs in check—wasn’t telling the full story. So, she dedicated her research efforts to discovering the whole truth about why children’s BMIs rise faster in the summertime. (Answering this question is more urgent than one might think: a longitudinal study Dr. Moreno helped conduct in Ft. Bend County—the most diverse county in the U.S., which helps to control for variables like race and ethnicity—found that greater summer weight- gain affects the likelihood that a child will be overweight or obese by fifth grade.) When thinking about all of the things that differentiate summer from the school year, Dr. Moreno—a mother of two young children herself—wondered if later bed- and wake-times might affect weight in children. Her initial data showed that later sleep points in the summer do affect BMI. It is her unique work examining circadian rhythms, sleep, and their connections to childhood overweight and obesity that have catapulted both our scientific understanding and Dr. Moreno’s career.
Dr. Moreno’s favorite part about research is “the creativity involved in developing new ideas, believing in those ideas, and putting them out there. It’s exciting for others to respond to those ideas with their own excitement. It also creates self-confidence.” Her least favorite part is “the constant fear that you haven’t done enough—published enough, gotten enough grants. It all comes back to self-doubt.”
Dr. Moreno isn’t the only investigator with a top-notch resume to lament the self-doubt inherent in research. But she may be ahead of the curve in recognizing it for what it is. “If I could tell my graduate-school self one thing,” she said, “it would be to have more confidence and believe in yourself. Don’t be afraid to go after something that might seem crazy at first.” Especially given that her ultimate goal is to help prevent childhood overweight and obesity, we hope that Dr. Moreno continues to ask