Dear Readers: Continuing my tradition of interviewing key medical school leaders about their views and visions for nutrition and what we can do to support a healthy community, Julia Firnhaber, a second-year Brody medical student and I visited with Dr. Jason Higginson, the new executive dean of the Brody School of Medicine. We had a great visit, but Julia did most of the work in preparing this column. Here is how our visit went.

Although Dr. Jason Higginson is the new executive dean of Brody School of Medicine, he is not a newcomer to the Brody family or the Greenville community. He previously served in the Department of Pediatrics and has been in Greenville almost 10 years. We started our conversation asking about favorite foods. Higginson said he grew up on his family’s ranch, so he tends to be a meat eater. Recently in support of one his children’s decision to follow a vegetarian diet, the whole family is making efforts to choose more plant-based options.

In terms of physical activity, Higginson keeps himself busy. He is an ex-marathoner, runner and biker, and has recently started rucking — walking or hiking with a heavy backpack or rucksack. As an active-duty Naval officer, he must meet the U.S. Navy’s fitness standards which includes a plank test instead of sit ups. Planking has been shown to be safer for the lower back and a better measure of overall core strength. Higginson smiled when he shared that holding the position for 3 minutes would max out the plank test, so of course he’s aiming for 3.5.

As an avid runner and biker, he recognizes that a major barrier to health in our community is lack of access to safe areas for walking, running, biking and other outdoor activities. He applauds the efforts to extend Greenville’s greenway system as well as work over the years to increase the number of sidewalks and trails in our community. But he believes there is more to do.

Growing up in Los Angeles and living other large cities like Washington, D.C., he knows that good infrastructure facilitates safe exercise and wishes the same for our community. He recounted that while in DC he biked to work but would not feel safe doing it here in Greenville. As the daughter of an avid biker, I’ve too asked my father to avoid biking to work because I worry when he bikes without bike lanes or trails.

As someone who personally and professionally wears many hats, it’s no surprise that Higginson has a unique take on what nutrition means. He said that most of his mentality about nutrition stems from his military training, where a focus is on healthy eating to improve performance. Higginson said that these views transfer to all aspects of life. If you aren’t well nourished, you won’t perform well. He has seen that as a clinician trained in pediatrics with a specialty in neonatology, as a parent of two children, and now as a leader of our medical school it is important to work toward optimal health.

But he recognizes we all face challenges. For example, since his appointment as executive dean he was not great at tending to his own health needs — finding himself often dehydrated or way too hungry and irritable. He found a solution that is working. He is scheduling “health breaks” — a few minutes scattered throughout his day of busy meetings and other important tasks to ensure that he is taking care of himself. He said it best: “You don’t perform well when you aren’t well nourished.”

As for his views on keeping the Brody family healthy, he recognizes that often the path of least resistance is also the most restrictive. For example, with the pandemic it can be easier to cancel classes instead of finding ways to safely engage. He was deployed overseas for most of the pandemic and experienced the need to foster connections among others who were deployed while remaining safe. Like many of us, he relied heavily on video chatting with family and friends to stay engaged. Going forward he wants to make sure we don’t take the easy way out but instead recognize the learning needs of all students which may require hybrid options for students who aren’t comfortable or able to be in person.

As for his vision for Brody and the surrounding community, he feels the people he is serving should set the agenda. It’s well known that weight and overall health correlate to longevity and quality of life. Higginson feels that as a community we can focus on the goals we hold in common — to live a long and healthy life.

Higginson feels that the three-fold mission of the school — focusing on increasing the supply of primary care physicians in North Carolina, improving the health status of the citizens of eastern North Carolina, and enhancing access of minority and disadvantaged students to medical education, closely aligns with the work and strategies set forth in the N.C. Obesity Plan.

Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an affiliate professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at [email protected].

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