2018-05-17 / News

Brown honors local for thinning out population

Seaside Drive woman noted for obesity research

WING WING A medical researcher who has devoted her life to making patients skinnier is fattening up her trophy case.

Rena Wing, a part-time Jamestowner with a home on Seaside Drive, was recognized by Brown University last month for obesity research that has been the focus of her career the last two decades.

Founded last year as the Research Achievement Awards, she was one of six faculty members to be honored during the April 19 ceremony.

“I was thrilled,” Wing said about her newly minted “distinguished” status. “It was a very nice thing to receive.”

According to Wing, Brown is well known for its teaching awards, but researchers can be sometimes overlooked, making this honor that much more special. The award honors Wing’s entire body of work since 1998, which is when she began researching and lecturing at The Warren Alpert Medical School. She doubles as director of the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center at The Miriam Hospital, both in Providence.

Wing was nominated by Dr. Steven Rasmussen, chair of Brown’s psychiatry and human behavior department. His glowing letter of recommendation highlighted her zealous research on obesity, which is subsidized through the National Institute of Health. She also developed the concept for the weight control center at Miriam, personally training most of the researchers, including the nine current faculty.

While Wing believes it is important to study obesity because of its prevalence in American society, she also realizes its relation to other common health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and several types of cancer. She tells her medical students, “No matter what area of medicine you’re going into, you’re going to be seeing problems related to obesity.”

In many cases, she said, being overweight is an area in which people can control to live longer and healthier lives.

Wing’s most notable project has been Look AHEAD, a long-term clinical trial on weight loss among 5,145 American adults with type- 2 diabetes. The preliminary goal of testing, which has been ongoing for 16 years, was to determine whether weight loss lowers the risk of heart disease.

“We actually did not find that weight loss reduced the risk of heart disease, but we have found many other benefits of weight loss in this population,” she said.

In another study, Wing developed a lifestyle intervention program that produced results she called “extremely significant.” Her team found weight loss could reduce the chance of developing diabetes by more than 50 percent.

“That’s been the single biggest accomplishment of my life,” she said. “It’s probably the best evidence of the importance of weight loss.”

Wing said her research plans for 2018 have not changed, regardless of the award. She is continuing a study about weight gain among children during the summer, and will continue to work on Look AHEAD, which is an acronym for Action for Health in Diabetes. Her primary focus will be on a study that requires patients to report their weight to her online, opposed to at the office. According to Wing, her team is trying to expand that program to primary care practices across Rhode Island.

“That’s an exciting study because we’re able to offer an effective treatment to many, many more people than we typically can,” she said.

Originally from Long Island, she graduated from Connecticut College with her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1967, and earned her doctorate in social psychology four years later from Harvard University. Her interest in medical research began as an undergraduate.

“I was a psychology major at a small school, and they let me do the research I wanted,” she said. “That became very exciting to me.”

She began focusing on weight loss specifically to work with a faculty member whose lectures she enjoyed. The professor was doing research on smoking, which did not interest Wing. Instead, she decided to apply some of the professor’s methods to a topic that struck a chord with her. When she started her research, obesity was not the epidemic it is today.

Outside of the hospital, Wing splits her time between Seaside Drive and the East Side of Providence. Along with her husband, Edward, the Wings purchased their West Passage home in 2012, which is where they typically spend weekends. They enjoy the relaxing atmosphere compared to the hustle and bustle of the capital city.

“It’s a very warm community,” she said. “Everybody knows everybody.”

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