Impact of Environments and Availability on Food Preference

Randy Bach, COL ’24, San Diego, CA

I’ve always been interested in food behavior: specifically in what we eat, why we eat, and what factors influence how much we eat. At Penn, I started research to explore these fields, and like many others, was told to focus on either wet lab or clinical research. Seeking to continue and expand my experiences in working with patients, I began clinical research in a lab focusing on eating disorders and weight loss. In the past few years, I never had time to broaden the breadth of my research skills, but this summer, I was finally given the opportunity and resources to pursue the unfamiliar wet lab.

During my summer internship at the Scripps Research Institute, I investigated food behavior with the Zorrilla Lab, a group whose mission has wider applications to obesity, addiction, and eating disorders. With supportive mentorship, I led an independent project to investigate food preferences in animal models. Our study utilized a cycling paradigm, in which the mice would either have free-feeding access to a choice of highly-palatable pellets and standard chow or solely the standard chow. The predicted outcome would involve a binge-like behavior and greater consumption on days with choice, followed by rejection and self-starvation on days with only standard chow.

Throughout the few months at Scripps, I measured daily consumption amounts of the different foods as well as weight fluctuations due to intake patterns. In addition, I integrated the use of novel feeding devices coding valuable data, including the number of pellets consumed, the time between meals, patterns based on the circadian rhythm, and more. My progress so far confirms our hypothesis, and I’ll continue to analyze information to find patterns within genetic variants responsible for these behaviors.

I’m most passionate about the relevant applications for patients, such as those in clinical settings. Learning more about how this model applies to reality, such as in the energy-dense food environments and food desserts we have today, I can draw parallels between wet lab and clinical interventions to improve health outcomes. This summer has further reinvigorated my passion for social determinants of health and the biosciences, now having multiple perspectives on how the environment can influence our diet and decisions. Combining all my research experiences up to this point, I have a stronger and more well-rounded background in food behavior, and as a future physician, I aspire to tangibly improve patient care through this newfound perspective.

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2023 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here

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Career Services