Penny Gordon-Larsen

Penny Gordon-Larsen is a professor and associate chair for research in the Department of Nutrition within the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. She is also a fellow within the Carolina Population Center and the Center for Urban and Regional Studies. Her research integrates biology, behavior, and environment to understand, prevent, and treat obesity and its associated cardiometabolic diseases.

Penny Gordon-Larsenphoto by Megan May
August 8th, 2018

When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A veterinarian. I have always loved animals and science — but my sister wound up being the vet in the family!


“Unraveling the complexity of obesity.”

Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

For grad school, I chose to go to the University of Pennsylvania where I set out to study global health, starting in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. But then I worked in a middle school in West Philadelphia to support my graduate studies — and realized that’s where my heart was. So I shifted my dissertation topic and began to work with teens in a predominantly low-income school in the heart of West Philly. The major issue facing those teens was an explosion in obesity, which is what I set out to study. It was an amazing experience that I loved with all my heart.

Penny Gordon-Larsen and her two kids

Gordon-Larsen with her two children.

Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

Most recently, I worked with 27 faculty from 16 departments, six schools, and five centers and institutes to develop a proposal for one of the UNC Creativity Hubs. Bringing together such a diverse group presented tricky issues related to cross-disciplinary science, which had the potential to impede progress. Once we all got together, we were able to define ideas and concepts and speak in general science terms rather than retreat to jargon. Fortunately, our Hub proposal was funded so now we are all working together on this super exciting project looking at all of the factors contributing to obesity in a new and inventive way.

What are your passions outside of research?

I love spending every moment I can with my husband and two teenagers laughing, listening to music, and exploring. I love hiking and spending time outdoors and I love to cook. I am also an avid reader and am always reading something for fun. I volunteer often at my son’s jazz organization, the Triangle Youth Jazz Ensemble, and Carrboro High School’s Academy of International Studies. I also spend a significant amount of time in service to my field mostly volunteering with scientific societies and the NIH. I think that it is very important to have passions outside of science; it improves the quality of my science to take time away, regenerate, relax, and think creatively.

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