Research Endeavors Illuminated Through Signature Research Initiatives

In 2023, Baylor University’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences announced its Signature Research Initiatives. The set of high-level research initiatives will inform the prioritization of resources, including faculty hiring, infrastructure enhancements, and fundraising efforts. 

May 10, 2024
A collage of Robbins College research activities.

In Fall 2022, Baylor University’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences announced to faculty and staff its intention to establish a set of high-level research initiatives that would inform the prioritization of resources, including faculty hiring, infrastructure enhancements, and fundraising efforts. This kicked off a year-long, college-wide collaborative project.  

Throughout the 2022-23 academic year, Robbins College leadership, faculty, and staff engaged in surveys, a town hall, and robust discussions to determine which initiatives could best represent the broad range of research endeavors being undertaken within the College. One goal throughout the process was for all Robbins College research-active faculty to be able to identify with at least one—if not multiple—of the final initiatives. 

After multiple rounds of feedback, the Robbins College Signature Research Initiatives were announced at the Fall 2023 Robbins College faculty and staff semester kick-off luncheon.

Behavioral and Human Sciences

Examining and modifying the environmental, psychological, and social determinants that influence behavior and health.

Chronic Diseases and Conditions

Understanding, preventing, and treating chronic diseases and conditions.

Health Access and Quality

Investigating and improving access to care and opportunities for healthy living.

(Re)habilitative Sciences

Optimizing function and independence for those who experience injury, illness, disability, or developmental delay.

Here, we introduce those initiatives to you by showcasing a current research project within each initiative. 


What does it take for us to feel a true sense of belonging? Our lives were meant to be shared with others in community and partnership. Karen Melton, PhD, Associate Professor of Child and Family Studies in the Department of Human Sciences and Design (HSD), believes that God dreams for us a life rich in character, mental and physical health, purpose, and close relationships. 

Five peoples' hands playing a board game.

Melton explains that engaging in shared experiences such as gatherings, events, and family activities is the most important way for us to build the world in which we want to live. Her research is focused on designing experiences that result in human flourishing. In turn, she is building a body of guidelines that will help practitioners understand how much social connection is needed in our daily lives.

Rates of loneliness have risen sharply over the last decade—so much so that the World Health Organization, the United States Surgeon General, and other international leaders in health and well-being have now identified loneliness as a global pandemic and public health priority. Melton says that loneliness is a robust predictor of morbidity and mortality, referencing a study that has identified that lacking social connection is more dangerous than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

“This is where my work enters the story, because social connection is really driven by participation in shared activities,” Melton explained. “Typically, the advice given to people who are experiencing isolation is to join a group or do an activity with others. However, I have always found this advice to be an oversimplification that’s not extremely helpful. It doesn’t recognize that all shared activities are not equal.”

Shared experiences vary on elements of environmental, psychological, and social determinants—and each type of shared experience leaves us feeling differently. Melton’s research suggests that by engaging in the appropriate experiences, our world can become more socially connected and people can enjoy a true sense of connection to God, self, others, and all 
of creation. 

“In understanding the types of shared activities that we have and how much socialization is needed in our daily lives, we can begin to prioritize our social health just as much as we prioritize our physical health,” Melton said. “Intentionality is a core piece of what I’m always thinking about. I believe our shared time together is one of the most sacred things that we have, and we should be more intentional in how we use it and design for it.”


Cory Dungan, PhD, Assistant Professor of Exercise Physiology in the Department of Health, Human Performance, and Recreation (HHPR), is researching the mechanisms that regulate muscle loss and the blunted response to exercise during chronic disease. Driven by a calling to help care for the sick, Dungan is focused on increasing quality of life for the aging population and those who have cancer. 

Cory Dungan works at a computer in Baylor University's Mooney Lab.

He works with safe, plant-based compounds called flavonoids, which can help extend a person’s ability to exercise or do meaningful activities. As an animal researcher, Dungan uses mice and cell models to identify why various genes and proteins are responsible for muscle loss during chronic conditions. His goal is to translate what he’s finding in mice to humans.

“I can’t necessarily heal you if you’re sick like a doctor can, but I can improve your quality of life,” Dungan explained. “We know that when you lose muscle mass, there are certain proteins that are either not making enough or bad proteins that are making too much. We are trying to identify those, and once we do, we can try to target them. If someone is not making enough of a good protein, how can we increase the expression of that? If someone is making too much of a bad protein, what can we give them to help reduce the expression of that?”

Dungan keeps an eye on the big picture. He says that if his team can identify something novel, something that may slow muscle mass by 1% or 2%, it would be a win, because it will lead to people living healthier lives as they age, fight cancer, or experience side effects of cancer remission. 

“I don’t necessarily want to help you live to 100. I want to make it so that, if you’re going to die at 81 years old, every day of your 81 years you were able to do what you enjoy,” Dungan said.


Katie Janda-Thomte, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Health, is assessing food insecurity mitigation and improving healthy food access to promote health equity in underserved communities. She works alongside community members to figure out how they can better understand the issues they’re facing and develop solutions together.

Boxes of fresh vegetables with people's hands reaching to grab pieces.

“I’m looking at where food insecurity is occurring, who’s being disproportionately impacted by it, and how we can take some of that information to develop and evaluate programs and policies to try to make our communities, family members, friends, and neighbors more food secure and have healthier food options available in their communities,” Janda-Thomte explained.

Quality food must be affordable for those living in the community. Currently, she is part of a team that is evaluating the Double Up Food Bucks expansion in Texas. This incentive doubles the amount of fresh produce a person can purchase at participating farmers markets and grocery stores by matching Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamp benefits dollar for dollar. Ultimately, she says, food access is health access.

“In some neighborhoods, just because food is there doesn’t mean that it’s the highest quality of food. If we take that wise adage of ‘you are what you eat’ and you can only eat what you’re able to find or is available within your community, then what we have in our communities is incredibly important to our health,” Janda-Thomte said. “It’s inherently connected.”

Infrastructure also plays an important role in underserved communities. It’s difficult to eat healthy if quality food isn’t located near your house or if you don’t have regular access to transportation. 

Ultimately, Janda-Thomte believes it’s important to look at the strengths of a community instead of focusing on what’s not there. A neighborhood may only have a convenience store, but perhaps there’s a strong church network, and a partnership with churches could create pop-up food distribution sites that can have incredible impact. 

“I think that finding those strengths and celebrating them is a creative Christian approach to looking at some of these access and quality related issues,” Janda-Thomte said. “By working at the community level, there is huge scalability potential. These are entire communities that we’re talking about. We’re not just impacting one person—it’s entire neighborhoods, ZIP codes, cities, and states. That’s really promising, because it’s not just a drop in the bucket. It really has a ripple effect for a meaningful change in our communities.”


Two clinical associate professors in the Department of Physical Therapy are focused on “revving up” the nervous system in children. Elizabeth Ardolino, PT, PhD, and Megan Flores, PT, PhD, provide a type of physical therapy called locomotor training. During sessions, a child is placed into a bodyweight support harness over a treadmill. 

Physical Therapists work with a  young child, who has been placed in a harness, during locomotor training.

“By doing standing and walking activities on the treadmill, we hope to get the child’s nervous system excited so that it can change, adapt, and improve,” Ardolino said. “The nervous system is very adaptable, and the earlier you can get into intensive therapy, the better.”

Their work primarily focuses on children with cerebral palsy, but they also work with children with Down syndrome, spina bifida, and spinal cord injury.

“Kids with neuromotor conditions have developmental delays. They are not performing the gross motor skills that they would be if they were typically developing—they’re having trouble with rolling, coming up to sit, sitting by themselves, crawling, standing, and walking,” Flores explained. “The intervention that we’re providing helps them improve their functional mobility so that they can be more independent as they grow older.”

Cory Smith, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Health, Human Performance, and Recreation (HHPR), was intrigued by Flores and Ardolino’s research and offered an additional opportunity to collaborate by assessing neurophysiological measures. He uses technology to scan a child’s brain before and after three weeks of locomotor training, showing exactly how the brain adapts to this type of therapy. 

“As physical therapists, we are good at testing that functional piece, looking at how a child moves or how much they can move,” Flores said. “Our partnership with Dr. Smith provides images of what this child’s brain looks like on the first day and what it looks like on the last day. It’s quite remarkable! It’s exciting because we are seeing that what we’re doing does change the physiology of the nervous system.”

Treatment intensity matters at any age, but especially in children, the more intensely the nervous system is challenged, the more progress it makes. They see patients for three hours a day for three weeks straight—in sharp contrast, typical physical therapy for children with cerebral palsy is only once a week for 30 minutes. 

“My overarching, long-term goal is to change the face of pediatric rehab for children with cerebral palsy,” Ardolino said. “We need to make therapists and third-party payors realize that these kids benefit the most from intensive therapy. We must change the model of care that is currently out there.”

Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences will continue to spotlight faculty research within the Signature Research Initiatives. Please visit the Research section of our website to learn more.