Bonnie Spring, PhD, chief of Behavioral Medicine in the Department of Preventive Medicine, has received the 2021 Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM).
The award is the highest honor given annually by SBM, the nation’s leading group of multi-specialty professionals dedicated to improving health and quality of life through proven behavioral science.
“I’m deeply honored to receive this lifetime achievement award from SBM, which has been my professional home for more than 40 years,” says Spring, director of Team Science at the Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences (NUCATS) Institute. “Even more important is the acknowledgement it represents from the scientific and medical communities of the pivotal role that behavior plays in preserving and restoring health. It’s been a privilege to have my laboratory lead the way in demonstrating how risk-reduction interventions can be scaled to make preventive care accessible to all.”
Spring was honored by SBM for her research developing effective interventions to address prevalent behavioral risk factors like smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity, which are the most preventable causes of cancers and heart disease. She is recognized as the first scientist to succeed at using mobile technology to improve multiple risk behaviors simultaneously. Subsequently, she demonstrated that diverse population subgroups — low-income minorities, elderly, underinsured —can successfully use technology for health promotion. Her most recent work has shown how applying engineering optimization methods can make risk behavior interventions highly cost effective.
SBM also acknowledged Spring’s national leadership in helping accelerate the translational pipeline by founding a new journal, Translational Behavioral Medicine, and influencing the American Psychological Association to adopt evidence-based practice guidelines for the prevention and treatment of physical health conditions.
“I’m a great proponent of use-inspired research, which seeks fundamental understanding of health determinants in the service of solving immediate problems,” Spring says. “Even as the government invests billions of dollars in health-related research, it still takes 15 to 20 years for a fraction of discoveries to translate into evidence-based clinical practice or public health policy.”
Spring is also director of the Center for Behavior and Health at the Institute for Public Health and Medicine and program co-leader of Cancer Prevention at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.
The COVID pandemic has served to amplify Spring’s approach to translating discoveries in a more efficient manner. With the knowledge that two in three Americans are overweight, and that obesity increases the risk of severe disease and death from coronavirus, Spring validated a remote weight-loss program known as Opt-IN. According to a study published last July, the Opt-IN program helped participants in a clinical trial lose 11 to 13 pounds, which is equivalent to the gold-standard National Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP). Opt-IN, however can be conducted at a lower cost and with much less difficulty than DPP.
Spring’s prolific career includes more than 400 publications and more than 25,000 citations. She has also embraced education and mentorship as professional pillars.
“Mentorship is a way to enable the next generation of scientists to stand on a predecessor’s shoulders and advance the pace of science,” Spring says.
Fifty-six of her former students now hold academic appointments, and more than 50,000 people have accessed the online NUCATS-sponsored learning modules that Spring’s team developed as part of teamscience.net, an online learning tool for team-based biomedical research.
Spring recently published findings that lay the groundwork for a recently funded project (R01DK125414) that continues the team’s use-inspired research on how to modify multiple health risk behaviors more efficiently. The research tackles the problem of how to detect when a person has established durable healthy behavioral change so that their treatment can be tapered (to spare cost) with low risk of relapse. To accomplish this, Spring is applying machine learning methods to measurements of diet and physical activity behaviors collected in six mobile health intervention trials conducted over 14 years among 1,600 participants.
The NUCATS Institute is supported, in part, by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, Grant Number UL1TR001422.