Rising Star Faculty Member Earns $626,000 Career Development Award from NIH

February 6, 2019

OVPR Contact: Whitney Richter, Baylor Office of the Vice Provost for Research, 254-710-7539

Media Contact: Lori Fogleman, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-710-6275
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by Blake Thomas, Baylor Office of the Vice Provost for Research

WACO, Texas (Feb. 6, 2019) – Kelly R. Ylitalo, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of public health in Baylor University’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences, has been awarded a prestigious career development grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the link between physical activity and healthy aging. The grant, valuing more than $626,000, will span a five-year project period.

The Mentored Research Scientist Award (K01) from the National Institute on Aging, one of 20 institutes within the NIH, is intended to help promising, early-career researchers build on their existing expertise through mentored training in a new methodology or area of study. The grant will allow Ylitalo to partner with local health care organizations to develop and test new methods for capturing and interpreting data about physical activity.

Ylitalo began studying the links between physical functioning and healthy aging while pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, where she worked on the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) – a 20-year, longitudinal study that tracks changes in health over time. The study seeks to identify physical functioning limitations earlier in life – things like decreases in walking speed – that correlate with disability and disease later in life.

While statistical analysis of data like the SWAN study remains an important part of her work, Ylitalo said her goal is to develop broader strategies that help people develop healthy habits.

“One of the unique things about being at Baylor is I’ve been able to look more broadly at aging and not just focus on physical functioning and disability,” she said. “I want to ask questions about what we can do across the life course to help people age well, and this grant will allow me to have dedicated time as a junior faculty member to do that.”

Part of that broad approach to healthy aging involves community-based, participatory research methods that create a dialogue between researchers and community members to identify socially and culturally appropriate interventions. Ylitalo is partnering with the Waco Family Health Center, as well as with the Center’s network of 15 satellite health care clinics throughout McLennan County that provide care to vulnerable populations in the McLennan County area. She plans to develop her first pilot interventions in consultation with a cohort of 60 women who are patients of the clinics.

“It’s important that this isn’t just a researcher telling people, ‘This is what you need to do to be healthy,’” Ylitalo said. “It’s about talking with people, learning about barriers to healthy activity and then, together with the participants, facilitating measurements and solutions. The Family Health Center is an asset in our community, and it is a privilege to work with them as a Baylor faculty member.”

Renée Umstattd Meyer, Ph.D., associate professor of public health in Robbins College, serves as one of Ylitalo’s mentors on the grant. She is pleased that Ylitalo will have the opportunity to further expand her skill set in a way that benefits the community.

“Kelly came to Baylor with amazing epidemiology skills in assessment and analysis,” Umstattd Meyer said. “This grant will give her the chance to build on that experience by developing more of the theoretical and social-behavioral skills found in the field of public health. Epidemiologists like Kelly are already trained to find connections in large data sets; this will give her the skill to apply that knowledge in a way that makes a difference to improve quality of life.”

Robbins College Dean Rodney G. Bowden, Ph.D., sees Ylitalo’s award as an important validation of her contributions to public health research at Baylor and the University’s strategic mission.

“We know in Robbins College the importance and quality of Dr. Ylitalo’s work,” Bowden said. “Yet, to see such a strong confirmation of the soundness of her science, methodology and innovative ideas from peers at NIH is rewarding. As Robbins College seeks to advance Illuminate, Baylor’s academic strategic plan, in various ways, including continuing to increase research expenditures through external funding, Kelly’s landing of such a prestigious award is a significant step.”

Echoing Bowden’s comments, Kevin Chambliss, Ph.D., interim vice provost for research at Baylor, said that career development grants like the NIH K01 help to lay the foundation for further growth in research at Baylor.

“The NIH K01 award is a great mechanism to help newer faculty establish themselves as independent researchers,” Chambliss said. “Grants like this one are important building blocks toward Baylor’s ultimate goal of reaching R1 status as one of the top research institutions in the country.”

Perhaps the most exciting thing about receiving the grant, Ylitalo said, is the opportunity it presents to leverage the resources and expertise of Baylor and community organizations for the benefit of people throughout the region.

“For Baylor, this grant provides an opportunity for us to connect with the central Texas community and work alongside vulnerable populations to find shared solutions to increase physical activity and improve health throughout the life course,” Ylitalo said. “I hope that this grant will open the doors for more funding to support good work that can be accomplished through academic-community partnership.”


Dr. Kelly Ylitalo’s research interests include physical functioning, obesity and physical activity, specifically in physical functioning trajectories during the mid-life and older adult years, and how behaviors like physical activity throughout the life course can facilitate healthy aging trajectories. Dr. Ylitalo applies quantitative statistical methods to longitudinal cohort studies and complex survey samples. As an epidemiologist, she works with national and local partners to evaluate and understand the health of individuals and their communities.

Dr. Ylitalo earned her B.A. in biology (pre-medicine), minoring in medical humanities, from Baylor in 2004. She later received her Master of Public Health degree in epidemiology from the University of North Texas Health Science Center School of Public Health in 2008, and her Ph.D. in epidemiological science from the University of Michigan School of Public Health in 2012.

Dr. Ylitalo joined the Baylor faculty in 2015 as an assistant professor of health, human performance and recreation, and now serves on the department of public health faculty in Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences. In 2015-2016, she was selected to participate in Baylor’s Rising Stars program, which gives early-career faculty members an intensive mentorship experience that helps put them on the fast track toward an independent, externally funded research program.


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.


The Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences at Baylor University was established in 2014, a result of identified priorities for strengthening the health sciences through Baylor’s strategic vision, Pro Futuris, and the University’s Illuminate academic strategic plan. The anchor academic units that form Robbins College – Communication Sciences and Disorders; Family and Consumer Sciences; Health, Human Performance and Recreation; Public Health; and Division of Health Professions – share a common purpose: improving health and the quality of life. The College’s curricula promotes a team-based approach to transformational education and research that has established interdisciplinary research collaborations to advance solutions for improving quality of life for individuals, families and communities. For more information, visit www.baylor.edu/chhs.


The Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR) supports faculty members from all academic units in their research and scholarship. The office provides pre- and post-award services for grants and contracts, facilitates Industry partnerships and collaborative agreements with external entities, manages compliance oversight, provides assistance with intellectual property and technology transfer, and offers marketing and communication support for Baylor research.

The OVPR also manages and operates the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative (BRIC), a three-story, 330,000-square-foot facility focused on interdisciplinary/international research, industry/university collaborations, business incubation/acceleration/commercialization, advanced workforce training, and STEM educational research and outreach.

For more information, please visit www.baylor.edu/research or www.baylor.edu/bric.