Affiliate Profile: Jaci VanHeest


Jaci L. VanHeest, Ph.D is an Associate Professor in the Neag School of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology. Her primary research interest is the endocrine control of bodyweight and how that is impacted by physical activity among elite female athletes and children at risk of obesity. Alongside her role as a faculty member and CSCH research affiliate, VanHeest is the faculty director of the Public Health House Learning Community and UConn’s NCAA Faculty Athletic Representative. In these roles, VanHeest has been able to encourage students to explore their interest in public health and to advocate for the wellness and academic success of student athletes.

VanHeest’s diverse background includes research in diabetes and exercise, pediatrics and nutrition, and the role of proteins in transport of ions in intestinal cells. She successfully started and ran PAW PALS (named for UConn’s mascot and for Physical Activity as a Lifetime Skill), a before school physical activity program for overweight and obese children in elementary and middle schools, for 15 years. Through this program, students and teachers reported improved physical well-being and academic success among participants. PAW PALS was first started as an engagement program; research is now being conducted on the program data to determine its successes and necessary modifications.

Involvement with CSCH

As an affiliate of CSCH, VanHeest’s main focus of study is analyzing the role active play has on physical activity habits, physical activity success, and academic success among school children. She believes that when children engage in play—an enjoyable physical activity, as opposed to exercise, which is associated with punitive experiences—they will be more willing to engage in physical activity in the long-term. Her current CSCH-funded research project examines how exergaming equipment influences children’s enjoyment of physical activity. Alongside fellow CSCH affiliate Dr. Rory McGloin, VanHeest is looking at whether riding a novel stationary bicycle with a gaming interface results in children engaging more intently in play and becoming more inclined to participate in physical activity.

During her time with CSCH, VanHeest has contributed greatly to the understanding of the value of movement in the development of children and on school engagement. “You have people doing all different types of work,” VanHeest says speaking of CSCH’s multidimensional approach. “We join together to create really clever approaches to important problems. I have found that to be a rich, interesting environment. It is also a really positive environment in the sense that the CSCH affiliates are extremely willing to share; they motivate and challenge you.”

Fun Facts

Dr. VanHeest is the proud owner of two Labrador Retrievers, Sophie and Findlay. In her spare time, she enjoys fly-fishing. Her Twitter handle is @JaciVanHeest