Current Physician Assistant student publishes undergraduate research in Global Pediatric Health

Robert Downing, B.S. ’18 (Applied Exercise Science)
Robert Downing, B.S. ’18 (Applied Exercise Science)

Robert Downing, B.S. ’18 (Applied Exercise Science), a first-year physician assistant (PA) student in the University of New England Westbrook College of Health Professions (WCHP), recently had his undergraduate research on carotid intima-media thickness (CIMT) and metabolic risk factors published in Global Pediatric Health’s special section on childhood obesity and nutrition.

The study, “The Influence of Metabolic Syndrome Risk Factors on Carotid Intima Media Thickness in Children,” was first published in Global Pediatric Health on Jan. 11. The journal focuses on health issues of children that are common to all regions of the world. 

Downing’s research was conducted as part of a four-year study funded through the Cardiovascular Health Intervention Program (CHIP) of the WCHP and Department of Exercise and Sport Performance. The work was conducted from 2014 to 2017 under Paul Visich, Ph.D., M.P.H., ACSM C-CEP, professor and chair of the department, and Rebecca Place, M.S., NSCA-CPT, then CHIP project coordinator.

The research publication presents a population-based cross-sectional and longitudinal study of cardiovascular risk profiles in public elementary school children in southern Maine. Participants included 769 fourth-grade students and 647 students in fifth grade. As part of the project, a subsample of children underwent an ultrasound procedure to assess their CIMT. According to the researchers, the thickness of the inner two layers of the carotid artery — the intima and media — have been shown to be correlated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in adults.

Through a WCHP summer research fellowship, Downing analyzed the CIMT data, compared it to the children’s metabolic syndrome risk factors, completed statistical analysis of the population, and took the lead in drafting the study’s manuscript.

Findings from the study demonstrate that children in the highest quartile for CIMT had a significantly higher waist circumference compared to other categories. The results stress the importance of how one’s waist circumference at a very young age can influence the initial changes in one’s blood vessels, possibly leading to significant vascular changes later in life.

Downing said he is grateful to the University for allowing him the opportunity to publish his research as an undergraduate student. He also said the decision to pursue his graduate studies at UNE was easy given his previous experience.

“The combination of research as well as my undergraduate experiences in the Applied Exercise Science program grew my love and passion for health care, and it pushed me to explore ways in which I could help improve an individual’s health and quality of life,” he said. “What better way to do so than to continue my education where it started, at UNE, in the Master of Physician Assistant program.”

Downing said that, after graduation, he hopes to implement evidence-based medicine into his practice to improve his patients’ quality of life.

“It is a great feeling to know that this research has the ability to impact lives, and it wouldn’t be possible without the amazing people at UNE who helped it all happen,” he said.