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Gary Bennett: Fulfilling A Grandfather's Dream
Durham, NC - On the wall of his well-kept office in the Psychology and Neuroscience building, Gary Bennett keeps a number of photos -- Charles Drew, John Henry, his family.
There's also a 3-by-5 photo of Bennett shaking hands with the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy while he worked as a visiting scientist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
That image meant everything to Bennett's late grandfather, who kept the photo on his nightstand.
"My grandfather was one of the smartest people I've known," Bennett said. "He grew up during the '20s in a very different America. He didn't go to college, but was incredibly hard-working, fought as a Buffalo Soldier in World War II and ultimately became a police detective. I think that for him, that picture signified the success of his efforts."
As a health researcher tackling such difficult issues as obesity, Bennett said the photo reminds him that "change often requires passion and time."
At 34, he's got plenty of both.
Bennett returned to Duke this fall, where he earned graduate degrees in clinical health psychology, to work as an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience.
The New Jersey native also holds positions in the Duke Global Health Institute, Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, Duke Center on Biobehavioral and Social Aspects of Health Disparities, and the Center for Health Policy. He has worked as a faculty member with a joint appointment at the Harvard School of Public Health (where he maintains a faculty appointment and a lab) and remains a visiting scientist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Bennett said one of the main reasons he returned to his alma mater in Durham is the interdisciplinary opportunities in his areas of interest.
"Reducing obesity in high-risk populations requires collaboration among researchers from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds," said Bennett. "Duke is at the forefront of interdisciplinary science. The walls between disciplines at Duke are very low. I was very excited about the prospects of returning to such a diverse community of researchers who are motivated to improve the health of individuals and populations."
A photo of Gary Bennett meeting the late Sen. Edward Kennedy is displayed in Bennett's office.
Bennett, who earned his undergraduate degree in psychology from Morehouse College, is a clinical psychologist/social epidemiologist whose research program is designed to identify optimal strategies to contend with the public health challenge of obesity, particularly among U.S. blacks.
Since 2003, Bennett has written more than 50 papers investigating social and psychosocial sources of racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in health behaviors that include obesity, physical inactivity and tobacco use.
His research has examined how factors like stress, socioeconomic status, and coping affect obesity. He has found that relative to whites, blacks have lower recognition of the health consequences of obesity and are more likely to misperceive their weight, even after receiving a physician diagnosis of being overweight.
Bennett's academic path has even included opportunities to work with some of the people who influenced him to pursue a career in health-related research, among them Duke professors Sherman James and Redford Williams Jr.
In North Carolina Bennett is working with Piedmont Health Services, a network of six community health centers in the state, to evaluate an intervention designed to prevent obesity among low-income female patients. His team will soon release iotaplan.com, a web-based weight-loss application for the general public.
"Much of our research is ultimately designed to get beyond the academic walls and touch people's lives," Bennett said. "So, our work incorporates psychology, public health, medicine, and policy. You can't address obesity in populations without thinking about all of these factors."
Bennett, who is married to a Duke Law graduate, said returning to his alma mater was an easy decision, despite his success in Massachusetts.
"Ten to 20 times a week people ask why I came back," Bennett said. "We love Duke. We value its people and relationships that we've developed. When we thought about the kind of life we wanted, it was here."
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