Skip Navigation

Global Obesity Prevention Center

The Pennsylvania "Big Data" Project


Understanding Obesity from Epigenetics to Communities

Project Lead: Brian Schwartz, MD, MS




P1 Medical FormThis study extends existing data and ongoing research to understand the dynamics of childhood obesity in a large population of children living in 1,300 communities that vary in their land use, food, physical activity, and social environments.

Using a comprehensive electronic health record (EHR) from the Geisinger Center for Health Research, we have obtained up to 10 repeated body mass index (BMI) measures on over 163,000 children.  This allows us to build models to understand how child characteristics, healthcare delivery and key community features affect trajectories of change in BMI. This is the largest study of longitudinal trajectories ever undertaken.  We are using both traditional multilevel regression and newer system dynamics models to better understand the complex and dynamic interplay that may give clues about the origins of the obesity epidemic in children.


P1 Physical ActivityWe are also conducting a nested sub-study of up to 600 children from a subset of 30 communities chosen from places that are both high (N=15) and low (N=15) in community features that could contribute to obesity. We are collecting new data on diet and physical activity from parents and children and mapping features of these communities using direct observation methods.  

A key feature of this study is that we are obtaining saliva samples from children to measure DNA methylation, an important new area of study that reflects how obesity-related genes may be turned on and off by various community and behavioral triggers.  This is among the first and largest studies of how community context impacts DNA methylation in loci that have been found to play a role in stress, appetite, and inflammation systems. 


Click here to see the project's overview information sheet.

There are two phases to this study:


Phase One: Research using electronic health records (EHR) and secondary data sources for community assessment.



Phase Two: Research with new, primary data collection.


Sample Presentations:

Sample Publications:

Please see here for all Faculty, Staff, Investigators, Students, and Post-doctoral Fellows involved in this project.

To learn more and find out how to get involved, please email the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins directly here.