Logo for University of Iowa Health Care This logo represents the University of Iowa Health Care

Faculty Focus: Helena Laroche

Date: Monday, July 1, 2019

Laroche Helena, portraitWhat is your hometown?

St. Louis

How/when did you become interested in science and/or medicine?

Both my parents are physician researchers, so I’ve always been around science. But I always loved science; I won my first big science trophy when I was in junior high. I wasn’t sure I was going to go into medicine, I thought about social work for a while but decided I wasn’t quite sure I could do it. And I just really love science and I love working with people, so medicine was the right combination for that.

When did you join the University of Iowa faculty?

September 2006

How or why did you choose to join the faculty at the University of Iowa?

Because they had the combination of things I needed. They were willing to support the type of research that I do which is unusual for this type of department and they have a really strong College of Public Health with whom I can work with not a lot of barriers to doing so. At other institutions there are barriers to between the College of Public Health and the School of Medicine so working across those lines is more difficult. Since I do a lot of that, that working relationship was important to me. And the University of Iowa had the support structure that I needed for my research.

I had a strong interest in public health and institutionally Iowa was a place where the boundaries between medicine and public health are more readily crossed.

Is there a teacher or mentor who helped shape your career?

I’ve been lucky to have a lot of people shape me as things went along. I had wonderful teachers in high school who supported me all the way along, I had a wonderful mentor on my honor thesis in college. In residency I was lucky enough to be taken under the wing of a pediatrician who told me specifically to get a Robert Wood Johnson fellowship and subsequently allowed me to go out into the community work and supported me while I was doing my first community work. From there I had the opportunity to work with a fabulous group of people who were all doing community research. Michelle Heisler and Matt Davis at the University of Michigan also helped me and allowed me to do that research which really got me here. It’s never been one particular person, it’s been every step of the way that I had a person or group of people helping me to get to the next spot.

How do you see your faculty role impacting medicine and/or science?

What I do connects medicine to the world outside of it. It takes what we have discovered to the outside world and applies it to real life. I see myself as a link between medicine and public health; a link between medicine and the community to try and figure out how we can work together to improve everybody’s health. My big randomized control trial is an intervention with low income families focusing on improving diet, exercise, sleep and other things that are related to childhood obesity. We send health coaches into the home to set family goals for healthier living and connect them with community resources that may be of help to them whether that is access to food, housing or even an exercise facility or program. The family makes the decision and then they help them to access the resources to fulfill their goals.

What is the biggest change you've experienced in your field since you were a student?

People are starting to recognize that obesity isn’t as simple as calories in, calories out. There is now acknowledgment of the role environmental, biological and other issues that are associated with obesity. It’s a much more complicated picture than people used to recognize. Nutrition impacts everything we do as physicians.

What one piece of advice would you give to today's students?

Follow your passion because this is hard work. If you don’t love what you do it will be harder to get where you’re going. Go to what speaks to you because that’s what’s going to keep you going.

In what ways are you engaged in professional activities outside the University (i.e. population-based research, mentoring high school students, sharing your leadership/ expertise with organizations or causes, speaking engagement off campus, etc.)?

I am a member of the Society of Behavioral Medicine and belong to the Family and Child Health Special Interest Group (SIG) in that organization. I’m on their advisory committee and have written a lot of policy briefs with them.

I participate in the Legislative Lunch and Learn through the Public Policy Center.

I give many community talks both here in Iowa City and in Des Moines.

I authored the “Healthy Foods Concession Stand Guidebook.” 

What are some of your outside interests?

I like to hike and tent camp. My family has made it a goal to hike in every park in Iowa. I like to garden and grow healthy food. I take weekly voice lessons and I love to sing.