Nutritionist researches child nutrition through the first one thousand days of life Meet Andrea McGowan

Andrea McGowan

Andrea McGowan assists the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to analyze data on childhood nutrition, breastfeeding habits, and the spread of COVID-19 throughout family homes. (Photo credit: Andrea McGowan)

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are the most important, says Andrea McGowan. However resources and nutrition education for new mothers may not always be accessible. McGowan hopes her research will bring this knowledge closer to the ones who need it the most.

Before studying childhood nutrition and public health McGowan was a high school student who had just been introduced to science fairs, thanks to her chemistry teacher. She graduated high school thinking she wanted to advance to medical school. While studying she discovered that she was interested in public health and chronic disease. Her new interest was what eventually lead to her research in childhood nutrition.

McGowan earned her bachelor’s in human health with a nutritional sciences minor from Emory University in 2019. Not long after, she received her master’s of public health in nutritional sciences from the University Of Michigan School Of Public Health in 2021.

While she knew she had plans to go to medical school right after her master’s, she decided to apply for an ORISE internship first in order to get some additional research experience. She joined on with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Division of Nutrition Physical Activity and Obesity (DNPAO). The CDC Research Participation Programs are educational and training programs designed to provide students, recent graduates and university faculty opportunities to participate in project-specific CDC research, current public health research and developmental activities.

She took on an important role within the Maternal, Infant and Toddler Nutrition Team of the Nutrition branch for the CDC. For one year McGowan put her skills to good use alongside her new team and mentor, Heather Hammer.

“The purpose of my research generally is to improve the nutrition and subsequent health outcomes of mothers and young children during critical times of growth and development,” she explained. “While my projects are more specific in scope, it fits within a larger puzzle of how we can better support mothers and young children to practice optimal nutrition and feeding habits.”

She did this by being a part of several specialized analysis projects. One such project looked at a nationally representative survey that was focused on the kind of feeding guidance mothers recalled their healthcare providers sharing with them. This project gathered data in order to better understand what mothers remembered from healthcare visits.

Another project McGowan assisted with was an analysis of breastfeeding habits across 24 months, accounting for different demographics and risk factors. Although exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months is crucial to development, only one out of four mothers are able to meet that goal for a variety of reasons. Increasing the ability to breastfeed is a part of McGowan and her team’s objective.

“Breastfeeding is really hard work for moms, but as a team we have long-term goals of increasing those numbers because it can improve health outcomes,” McGowan said.

Lastly, in a project that McGowan was especially excited to be on, she gathered data on household transmission of COVID-19. This project analyzed how COVID-19 spread throughout those living within the same home.

The goal of her team’s research is to inform recommendations for the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, as well as the health outcomes related to this early period. The projects she assisted with support efforts to ensure newborns get the adequate nutrition they need, and help their mother’s receive education on how to better feed their young children.

McGowan is looking forward to her team’s results being reviewed for publication in academic journals. Until then, she will be presenting some of their findings at the Society for Epidemiological Research 2022 conference in Chicago, IL. While her team’s research is under review she was also able to co-author an article on COVID-19 for Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in March 2022.

Looking back at her time with ORISE, a typical day during McGowan’s internship consisted of discussing analyses in team meetings, having workgroup check-ins and doing independent research. However, her favorite part was her mentorship. She credits Hammer as being a great joy to learn under, as well as two epidemiological intelligence officers and another ORISE fellow who took her under their wings. The skills she learned as an intern, such as developing her statistical analysis and scientific writing skills, will propel her to reach her aspirations as a future physician-scientist.

Since finishing her internship McGowan will continue researching women’s health, pediatrics and adolescent medicine in medical school. She recommends the program to others.

“I have been so fortunate to participate in ORISE this year,” McGowan finished. “ORISE is a great program with mentorship and educational opportunities as a staple of activities. It is a great program to learn, grow, develop confidence, and of course a safe place to make mistakes.”

The CDC Research Participation Program is managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between CDC and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.