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Students/Faculty News Kevin Storr October 31, 2022

Ayse Zengul, student in the UAB PhD in Nutrition Sciences program, has been awarded the Switzer Research Fellowship by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR). The Merit Fellowship supports scientists in the earlier stages of a research career, who conduct research on various outcomes of individuals with disabilities.

The ultimate objective of Zengul’s work is to develop a personalized nutrition recommendation expert system (PNRES) for people with physical disabilities that utilizes disability-inclusive nutrition guidelines developed using a Delphi methodology. She says because of profound alterations in body composition associated with paralysis, metabolic complications, sarcopenia, osteopenia, blunted anabolism, and energy metabolism, the recommendations in the nutritional guidelines for the general population are likely inappropriate.

“The nutritional needs of individuals with physical disabilities have been understudied – likely overestimated and underestimated – so we want to generate consensus-based nutrition guidelines for adults with spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, and arthritis who consume food through normal digestion and live in a non-clinical setting,” said Zengul.

Ultimately, the PNRES system will be connected to a commercial ingredient/recipe database and will be able to perform extensive recipe searches based on dietitian-approved recommendations, users’ preferences and medical conditions.

As part of the fellowship, the proposed study will build a foundation for future research aimed at evaluating the impact of implementing the new guidelines and determining the validity and feasibility of PNRES over a longer period of time. Upon completion of the fellowship, she plans to develop disability-inclusive nutrition guidelines for other populations such as spina bifida to be included in the PNRES.

“None of the existing nutrition recommendation systems or meal planner apps are disability-inclusive,” said Zengul. “Properly designed, implemented, and evaluated nutrition recommendation systems can be used as an effective instrument to improve diet and promote a healthy lifestyle.”

She believes developing an inclusive and innovative approach that is personalized and that considers the stakeholders while utilizing online technologies to optimize the diet for people with physical disabilities would accomplish much for many people with physical disabilities, including:

  • preventing nutrition-related health problems,
  • improving overall health and quality of life,
  • providing a person-centered approach considering the personal needs and restrictions of PWPD,
  • reducing the personal and environmental barriers that PWPD encounter in real-life settings, and
  • increasing the communication between PWPD and health professionals.

Zengul’s fellowship award, which covers Fiscal Year 2022, is $70,000 and will allow her to develop the guidelines, translate them into machine-readable rules, and perform the subsequent user testing with dieticians and people with physical disabilities.

“You are successful only if you surround yourself with the people who can take you to the next level. And UAB fosters a respectful and collaborative atmosphere wherein the students, like me, can align themselves and discover new horizons,” said Zengul. “I can say that having very supportive and dedicated mentors opens doors for many opportunities. I am very thankful for the unwavering support of my main mentor, Dr. Mohanraj Thirumalai, and my other professors, who play a crucial role in this journey.”

“NIDILRR as the primary agency funding disability and rehabilitation focused researchers, extremely values capacity building and creating a pipeline for future disability and rehabilitation researchers,” said Thirumalai, associate professor of health informatics in the Department of Health Services Administration. “I am so thrilled that Ayse has been chosen to receive this prestigious fellowship that is competed for by people with all levels of training and expertise. I look forward to seeing her establish a career as a disability and rehabilitation focused researcher.”

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