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The Wright stuff

September 29, 2023

New director of Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement is also a teaching professor, researcher and sustainability advocate

Editor's note: New Faces on Campus is a monthly feature by ASU News showcasing faculty members who have been hired in the 2022–23 academic year.

Wanda A. Wright served her country with distinction for more than a quarter-century, achieving the rank of colonel when she retired from the Air Force and the Arizona National Guard.

As a third-generation veteran, she gets to serve her country again — this time in a university setting.

It appears to be the perfect match. She has educational, federal, state and military experience, and has been applying her unique blend of skill sets at Arizona State University since June.

Wright is the director of ASU’s Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement (OVMAE), a teaching professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, and most recently, named by the Veterans Administration (VA) secretary to be the new chair for the VA Advisory Committee on Women Veterans and selected to be in the next class of Arizona Veteran Hall of Fame inductees.

She's also a new face on campus this year.

In her new position, Wright will be teaching, networking and promoting existing programs, as well as conducting vital research on veterans’ issues.

ASU News spoke to Wright about her life before and after the military, and the new journey that awaits her.

Question: Can you tell us a bit about your background — where you’re from and how you ended up in academia?

Answer: I grew up in a military family. We moved every two years to a new Army post until I graduated from high school. After graduating from the United States Air Force Academy, I was commissioned and was relocated twice in my military assignments to Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, South Carolina, in 1985, and to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, in 1987. Three years later, I transitioned out of the active-duty military into the Arizona National Guard. I changed positions, on average, every three years while in the Guard. I retired in 2011 after 26 years of service and transitioned into education.

My role in education was as a vice principal and an elementary school teacher for four years. I taught math to sixth graders and middle school students. While there I also applied to ASU to get a master’s degree in educational leadership. I finished the degree during 2015; by then, I had been asked to be the director of the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services (AZDVS). I spent the next eight years there as director and left the position in 2023.

The combination of all these roles put me in a great position to apply for the director of the Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement. I started the new job on June 1.

Woman's portrait in front of charts in office

Wanda A. Wright photographed at her College of Integrative Sciences and Arts office on the Downtown Phoenix campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Q: What is your area of research or academic focus? What are you most excited about regarding your work?

A: I love that I can continue to work with veterans. Working at AZDVS over the last eight years put me in a position to network with a myriad of organizations to support veterans. I am glad I can bring that expertise to ASU. I am excited to work in an academic environment and to do research on veterans. I am looking forward to writing papers around veteran issues and finding solutions for those issues.

Q: When did you realize you wanted to study this field?

A: I always had a feeling I would work at ASU in OVMAE. I assisted the director at the time in 2016 for the program in writing the curriculum for the certificate in study of veterans, society and service. I worked with Nancy Dallett, the assistant director at the time, to begin the process of creating a woodland therapy program. It all came full circle when I was called to tell me I got the job of director.

Q: How do you want to see this field advance to the betterment of society?

A: We are losing veterans every day. It is important to recognize the good and bad of serving in the military so we can figure out how to mitigate the harm of war as much as we can. Each veteran has a story to tell about their experience. Each of these stories added together can give us insight on how to help the next generation of veterans.

Q: What is something you wish more people realized about your work or research?

A: OVMAE is a little-known resource. But the office has great potential to bring knowledge, research and collaboration to ASU and the larger community. Examples include a stronger bond between Veteran Affairs and ASU research, understanding tribal ceremonies and their effect on veteran PTSD or working with the DOD as to why is there a lack of minority leadership in the military.

I also want to note that we bring together the veteran community and ASU to discuss issues around social determinants to include employment, caregivers, mental and physical health. Our programs like Guitars for Vets, Treks4Vets, poetry workshops, employment roundtables and Veterans Voices support keeping the connection and education of veterans at ASU and in the larger community.

Q: What brought you to ASU, and what do you like about the university?

A: Everyone is so helpful. I ask a lot of questions, and everyone is so happy to help.

Q: What specifically would you like to accomplish while at your college/school/department?

A: I would like to make the office into an entity that everyone knows and uses to support discourse, research and teaching those who have served to increase understanding between military, civilian and academic cultures.

Q: What’s something you do for fun or something only your closest friends know about you?

A: I garden and hike. Both hobbies have taught me a lot about how to live sustainably in the world.

Top photo: Col. (Ret.) Wanda Wright gets help from her dog Nakai as she tends her south Tempe garden on Friday, Sept. 1. She is the new director of ASU’s Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement and a teaching professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Reporter , ASU News


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‘Freshman 15’ may be a myth, but beneficial gut microbiome still important

September 29, 2023

ASU study reveals how microbiome can impact weight gain among college students

One of the long-held beliefs about college students is the “freshman 15,” the idea that first-year students gain an average of 15 pounds when they first enter college because they don’t know how to manage their food consumption.

There’s just one problem with that belief: It may not be true.

A study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information showed that students gain an average of only 3.2 pounds throughout their first year of college.

But, according to a paper co-written by Corrie Whisner, an associate professor in Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions, and postdoctoral student Alex Mohr, poor eating habits and weight gain — even if not as substantial as the “freshmen 15” — can lead to health problems later in life.

Their study, published in Gut Microbes, a leading gut microbiome journal, explored the intricate relationship between dietary habits, lifestyle changes and the gut microbiome for college freshmen living in on-campus dormitories, and how the community of microorganisms in digestive tracts plays a pivotal role in overall health.

"To our knowledge, this is the first longitudinal study to observe a statistically significant relationship between weight change and the structure of the gut microbiome in dormitory-dwelling emerging adults during the first year of college," Mohr said.

ASU News talked with Mohr and Whisner, who are also researchers in ASU's Biodesign Center for Health Through Microbiomes, about their study.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: The "freshman 15" is a widely accepted idea. How does your research challenge or support it?

Whisner: I guess I would start by just prefacing what the freshman 15 is now. That’s sort of an outdated term. Now, students are actually only gaining about two to five pounds in their freshman year. The literature is associated with the fact that students are entering college at a greater weight, so there’s maybe less room for adding additional pounds. But that weight gain can continue beyond freshman year. Some citations state that by the end of your second year, you’ve gained about, on average, 10 pounds. So what we’re talking about in our paper is much more subtle shifts in weight, but they’re definitely representative of what’s common in college populations these days. And it doesn’t mean that it’s less impactful.

Q: Can you explain the role of the gut microbiome in weight regulation among college students?

Mohr: That’s pretty complex to answer, but basically, there’s a lot of interactions going on with the foods that we eat, particularly foods that we know are more beneficial for the microbes that are harbored in our gastrointestinal tract, particularly in the lower portion. One thing we noted with the cohort was that they weren’t eating as much fiber as they should. They were well under the amount of fiber needed. Generally, we know that when you’re eating greater fiber, you’re supporting communities of microbes that are more generally associated with health.

Q: Your paper highlighted two specific microbes: Prevotella and Bacteroides. Why are they significant?

Mohr: Bacteroides is generally more associated with a Western-style diet, like a higher-fat diet. Prevotella is associated with a higher-fiber diet. We found a trend where if you have a higher ratio of Prevotella to Bacteroides, that is more associated with someone that is either lower in body weight or has lost body weight — whereas those that stabilized in weight or gained weight had a lower ratio. One of the more important findings in the paper was that we found it was very difficult over the academic year for a person to shift between those two states, basically between a Prevotella-dominated state to a Bacteroides-dominated state.

Q: Isn’t this sort of common knowledge, the idea that if you eat more fiber and less fatty foods you’ll maintain or lose weight?

Mohr: What we’re finding, or what at least this data is suggesting, is that the composition of the microbiome is important in terms of not dictating necessarily, but at least being associated with if you’re going to be predisposed to gaining, losing or maintaining weight.

Q: So, it’s as simple as eating healthier?

Mohr: Unfortunately, it’s not that easy because one of the analyses that we did was looking at how you can shift into a Prevotella-dominated microbiome versus a Bacteroides-dominated microbiome. It’s not as simple as eating more fiber because these microbes are very antagonistic, meaning that they don’t really like to be with each other. The results showed that the baseline composition of the gut microbiome matters, and a reductionist approach of simply eating more fiber is not enough. The broad set of factors examined, including physical activity, sleep, depression and various dietary attributes, show a more personalized approach is likely needed to promote the microbiome states.

Q: Corrie, how would you describe your findings?

Whisner: Our study underscores the importance of the gut microbiome's composition in weight dynamics. The freshman year can significantly impact late-stage adolescents' gut health. While earlier beliefs suggested our microbiome is fixed by age 3, our findings indicate potential for change even during later stages. Harnessing this understanding can profoundly affect health interventions tailored for young adults.

Top photo courtesy iStock

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News