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Research Laboratories                      Open Prairie Collection

The mission of the Department of Health and Nutritional Sciences is to focus on improving the quality of life regionally, nationally and globally by fostering life long learners, conducting innovative science and delivering effective outreach in the areas of health and nutrition. Faculty within the Department of Health and Nutritional Sciences work collaboratively to study obesity, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, multiple sclerosis and concussion from numerous research angles. To improve individuals’ health, scientific discoveries must be translated to practice. Our department participates in translational research, discovering through basic research, progressing to the clinical level and application. 

Molecular Nutrition

The goal of the Molecular Nutrition group is to investigate effects of biologically active dietary components at physiological as well as cellular level in context of health and diseases. Current focus of their research team is to investigate mechanisms of nutrient-gene interaction in inflammatory diseases, metabolic syndrome and cancer. In addition, the group is investigating the impact of calcium and vitamin D in signal transduction pathways in adipocytes.


Obesity is a major concern within the United States and specifically within South Dakota. Childhood obesity rates have increased dramatically in South Dakota in 10-17 year old children. If timely, dramatic, and effective measures are not implemented, the current 30% national prevalence of excessive weight and obesity among children will likely double by 2030. Obesity is related to poor nutrition, the lack of physical activity and increased sedentary behavior. Obesity has been associated with increased risk for many chronic diseases such as, but not limited to: hypertension, dyslipidemia, metabolic syndrome and diabetes. We have a transdisciplinary group of faculty who are investigating the prevention and treatment of obesity from bench top to practice in children and adults. Research focuses on cellular mechanisms, nutrition, physical activity, recreation, community wellness and biomechanics.

Some of the specific obesity related research projects are investigating:

  1. the impact of school based interventions on nutritional intake, physical activity and biomarkers of chronic disease risk;
  2. the influence of rural environments on physical activity and sedentary behaviors; and
  3. the relationship between the quality and implementation of school wellness policies and various health outcomes.

Sport-Related Concussion in Physically Active Youth and Rural Environments

Concerns related to the consequences of sport-related concussions in physically active youth have gained attention as a major public health issue and are at the forefront of sports medicine. Short term consequences from returning to activity (cognitive and physical) too soon after a head injury (regardless of severity) include catastrophic outcomes such as second impact syndrome and lingering outcomes such as post-concussion syndrome. Long-term consequences from inappropriate care include impairment of physical, behavioral and emotional well-being as well as decreased quality of life. Compounding the issue in rural communities, such as South Dakota, is the challenging nature of rural healthcare – which includes limited access to qualified healthcare providers who can offer early intervention to mitigate issues.

In collaboration with rural school districts and youth sport organizations, we are utilizing evidence-based assessment and management protocols into the care of physically active youth in South Dakota. We are (1) measuring the severity, outcomes and gender differences of physically active youth in South Dakota and (2) evaluating changes in quality of life, as well as changes in emotional, behavioral and social well-being in youth who have suffered concussion. Additionally, we are also examining the effectiveness of concussion education strategies in increasing awareness of prevention, recognition and management of pediatric concussions in multiple populations including parents, student-athletes, coaches, school health professionals and medical personnel.

Individual Faculty Research Focus Areas

  • Brad Bowser’s research focuses on lower extremity biomechanics as it relates to clinical populations. The overall purpose of his research is to enhance quality of life by improving functional performance and increasing physical activity in clinical populations, including obesity, Parkinson Disease and Multiple Sclerosis.
  • Moul Dey’s molecular nutrition research investigates nutrient-gene interaction and how they relate to human diseases. Currently her laboratory is actively working on projects related to bowel health, cancer and metabolic syndrome. The unique translational approach adopted by Dr. Dey for solving scientific problems, holds tremendous potential of impacting and benefitting public health outcomes.
  • Elizabeth Droke’s research focuses on the influence of bioactive food components on obesity and chronic inflammation. This includes the development of translational animal models and impacts on the immune system.
  • Becky Jensen focuses research efforts on school-based nutrition and physical activity programs for pre-adolescent youth and cross-age/peer led health promotion efforts.
  • Kendra Kattelmann has an active research program in the development of behavior and environmental based programs for prevention of obesity in the 18-24 year old population. She has additional research foci in the use of traditional diet and control of type 2 diabetes in the Northern Plains Indian and effects of lean beef on iron and lipid status.   
  • September Kirby collaborates on research that focuses on promoting healthy lifestyle behavior in both individuals and worksite wellness environments. In addition, she is interested in effective health education strategies.
  • Hung-Ling (Stella) Liu’s research focuses on individuals’ social and psychological development through recreation and managing natural resources for sustaining community social, economic and environmental assets. Such research topics includes community recreation participants’ leisure pursuit and identity, recreation need assessment, health benefits and social values of parks, nature resource management for recreational use and tourism development, feasibility study and economic impact, and visit pattern and visitor experience.
  • Lacey McCormack's research focuses on the rural food environment (and eating behaviors therein) and determinants of body weight and composition in rural populations. This involves examining the rural food environment and resulting health implications, examining potential environmental determinants of obesity in rural youth and young adults and exploring innovative interventions aimed at reducing obesity through changing behaviors (diet, physical activity) and the environment.
  • Jessica Meendering’s research focuses on physical activity promotion and sedentary time reductions in women and children to reduce the risk of chronic disease. She also has an excellent research history investigating macro and microvascular function and is currently bridging the gap between her research focus areas by investigating the impact of physical activity and sedentary time on vascular function. In addition, Dr. Meendering leads the Transdisciplinary Obesity Prevention Certificate Program at South Dakota State University. 
  • Tracy Nelson's research focuses on Physical Education Teacher Education (PETE) standards as they relate to teacher candidates and teacher training. The overall purpose of her research is to enhance the PETE teaching practices to ensure quality-teaching practices in the field of physical education and health.  
  • Trevor Roiger's research interests include the psychological influence of sport-related injury and the effect of head injuries on pediatric quality of life. He also focuses on the dynamics of higher education and their impact on athletic training education programs.
  • Bryan Romsa’s research interests include leadership behaviors and development in sport management students through service learning. He also focuses on collegiate student athlete leadership development through community service and volunteerism.
  • Bonny Specker's research interest includes epidemiological studies and clinical trials related to the role of calcium in modifying bone response to physical activity, and factors affecting longitudinal changes in bone mass and body composition throughout life. She has been the principal investigator on several large cohort studies and clinical trials in eastern South Dakota related to bone health and pediatrics.
  • Matthew Vukovich’s research focuses on the interaction of nutrition and exercise on body composition, hormones and Muscle-Bone Relationships. He also investigates the impact of exercise training on iron status.
  • Lee Weidauer's research focuses on the utilization of nutritional interventions and exercise in the prevention and treatment of orthopedic injuries and conditions. Through this work, Dr. Weidauer aims to reduce the long-term burden of orthopedic injuries and conditions in an effort to maintain or improve quality of life. Some particular injuries and conditions that Dr. Weidauer focuses on include ACL prevention and treatment along with the treatment and prevention of osteoarthritis.
  • Mary Beth Zwart’s research focuses on the use of therapeutic modalities and exercise in clinical practice. As well, Mary Beth has investigated evidence based practice teaching pedagogies related to Athletic Training Education Programs.