Date May 16, 2024
Media Contact

Brown faculty to confer highest honor on renowned obesity and diabetes scholar

Rena R. Wing, a longtime medical school professor who focuses on prevention and treatment for obesity and related health complications, will receive the Rosenberger Medal of Honor during Commencement and Reunion Weekend.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When Rena R. Wing joined Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School in 1998, there were few research centers focused on how changes to diet and exercise can impact obesity. So Wing launched one out of an office at the Miriam Hospital, one of the medical school’s teaching affiliates.

Now 26 years later, the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center, still directed by Wing, occupies its own three-story building near the medical school. More than 50 researchers and staff members, including 14 Brown faculty members (clinical psychologists, dieticians, exercise physiologists and neuroscientists) and two postdoctoral fellows, conduct clinical trials and behavioral, observational and experimental studies for people of all ages.

“We've grown an entire program here where we’ve been able to conduct truly impactful research on behavioral approaches to treating obesity and diabetes,” said Wing, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior. “Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and kidney disease. Losing weight — even modest amounts of weight — can have a positive impact on people's health.” 

For that work and many other accomplishments during her time at the University, the Brown University faculty will award Wing the Susan Colver Rosenberger Medal of Honor during the University’s 256th Commencement on Sunday, May 26. The medal is the highest honor the Brown faculty can bestow, and it has been awarded just 35 times since its establishment in 1919. Among the previous honorees are Nobel laureates, University presidents and chancellors, pioneering Brown faculty and esteemed public servants.

Wing is being recognized for her decades-long dedication to improving human health, as well as for her mentorship to early-career scientists, said Steven Sloman, chair of the Faculty Executive Committee and a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown. 

“Rena Wing’s pioneering work on the prevention and treatment of obesity, diabetes, vascular disease and even Alzheimer’s disease has had a major impact on the health of people in Rhode Island and across the country,” Sloman said. “The faculty are proud to bestow upon her the highest honor that they can offer.”

For more than 40 years, Wing has conducted research on the prevention and treatment of obesity, and she has published over 600 peer-reviewed research studies. Her scholarship on lifestyle approaches to the control of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases has had lasting impact on the science of behavioral medicine.

Wing developed the lifestyle intervention used in the Diabetes Prevention Program, for example. That federally funded study changed the worldwide approach to preventing diabetes, finding that changes to diet and increased physical activity reduced the risk of diabetes by 58%.

She was the principal investigator for the Miriam Hospital site of the Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes) study, and chair of the entire randomized clinical trial of 5,145 people spanning 16 centers across the U.S. The study, which lasted more than two decades, demonstrated that lifestyle interventions reduced the risk of complications from diabetes such as kidney failure, urinary incontinence, depression, frailty and remission.

In addition to her impact as a researcher, Wing has been recognized for her mentoring efforts by the Society of Behavioral Medicine, the American Psychological Association and the Obesity Society. Many of the researchers mentored by Wing have advanced into careers leading nationally recognized programs in the behavioral treatments of obesity.  

“The Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown has a very strong clinical internship program, and we’ve been able to build our program tremendously by bringing in clinical psychology candidates and helping them launch their research careers,” Wing said.

Wing was a member of the council for National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and served on its Task Force on the Prevention and Treatment of Obesity. She has received the Presidential Medal of Distinction from the Obesity Society, the John H. Chafee Leadership in Healthcare Award from the American Heart Association and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association.

Wing said that the Rosenberger medal recognition by her Brown faculty peers is a professional highlight. 

“I'm still astounded by the news,” she said. “It's lovely to get recognized in this way for all your work.”