Through her research and community work, Prof. Laura Bellows, division of nutritional sciences, is helping children and families develop healthier eating and physical activity patterns.
Bellows’s research focuses on the development of eating behaviors and physical activity patterns in early childhood. Her academic training lies in exercise science, nutrition and public health. Bellows earned a B.S. in Exercise Science and Health Promotion from Miami University before going on to earn an M.P.H in Human Nutrition from the University of Michigan.
While studying public health through her master’s program, Bellows recognized her own privilege regarding food access, which inspired her to focus her work on lower-income communities.
“I had an experience in my master’s degree in which I was observing someone working with lower-income families, and it really resonated of how fortunate my upbringing was, and how challenging it is for some people — and the challenges were due to barriers, both systematic and educational, in some cases, or income-oriented,” Bellows said.
After completing her M.P.H., Bellows began working directly with communities, aiming to combine her backgrounds in nutrition and physical activity. Through this work, she helped design programs to improve families’ access to healthy foods while also respecting varying cultural backgrounds.
“[I] was not really focused on research per se, but really just working with people, communities and those that were lower-income,” Bellows said. “It ended up being in rural communities as well as Latino populations, from a health equity perspective.”
Bellows worked at Colorado State University for 21 years, starting in a local county through the university’s cooperative extension program. She then moved her projects to campus, funded through SNAP-Ed, a nutrition education program for people within the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. During this time, Bellows also earned a Ph.D. in Community Nutrition from Colorado State University.
“I worked on a program with lower-income preschool centers and healthy eating, and I came on to expand that program and continue to work with these lower-income communities and centers,” Bellows said. “That’s when we started adding research components to try to understand how well the program worked, and who it was reaching and what they were doing with the information.”
Bellows has continued her research at Cornell, having worked at the University for two years. In addition to conducting research, she has taught two courses — Nutritional Sciences 1400: Introduction to Human Biology, Health and Society and Nutritional Sciences 4500: Public Health Nutrition.
As Bellows has gained more responsibilities as a professor, she said she has found herself pulled away from some of her community work. Still, she finds the most rewarding part of her research to be interacting directly with communities.
“Relationships are really important in the work that I do, so making sure that we’re building relationships [with communities] and we’re giving back,” Bellows said. “And that we’re developing materials and interventions that are meaningful for our participants, and not telling them what we think they need to do, but rather grounding it in their lived experience, in their daily life.”
In the future, Bellows hopes to engage digital solutions in the interventions she develops.
“With COVID-19, everyone’s become more efficient with using their digital devices in ways that maybe we weren’t using them before. So, how do we reach families where they’re at — which could be at home and not having them come out to the community center?” Bellows said. “How do we use our resources in the changing tech world to better reach our families?”
In her next project, Bellows will focus on extending interventions to mothers, who she said often face diet-related health issues. Ultimately, Bellows said she hopes her work has impacted families as a whole, and she hopes to continue to support mothers facing limited resources.
“I would like to say that we are developing healthier eaters and kids who are more active, but I also hope that we’re decreasing the guilt felt by mothers, and that they can feel pride in doing the best they can do under their circumstances,” Bellows said. “I hope we’re giving them nuggets of information that they can incorporate to help themselves and their kids.”
This story is a part of the Professor Profiles series, which aims to highlight professors and their research across Cornell’s campus. Have a professor to recommend for this series? Email [email protected]!