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Grad Student Works to Fight Childhood Obesity – With Time Travel

Selena Lin with elementary students
Selena Lin reads to a group of elementary students.

February 26, 2014

By day, College of Medicine fourth-year PhD student Selena Lin attends classes in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and researches a urine DNA test for liver cancer screening in a lab. But by night, she works on a children’s book that she’s authored. It sounds like superhero work, and she would know: The protagonist of her book, Bob, is a young time traveler whose superpower shows the consequences of healthy and unhealthy eating habits.

While creating “Bob and His Time Travel Adventures,” Lin wanted to address and combat the growing epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes in a creative way that wouldn’t just spoon-feed facts to the young readers. That’s why Bob, the friendly cape-wearing time traveler, can go forwards and backwards in time to see the direct consequences of his eating habits (and why he’s heavier and has gross teeth when he eats a lot of lollipops).

“For kids, when they want to eat candy now, they don’t see what happens on in the future,” Lin said. “We want to show them this is what happens when you eat this or that.”

Bob the time traveler.

Lin, who graduated from Drexel in 2009 with a BS and MS in biomedical engineering, conceived of the idea of a time-traveling healthy eater last spring.

“My often busy and stressful schedule as a graduate student made me realize the importance of eating healthy and exercising regularly,” she said. 

She thought the superhero and fantasy element would appeal to kids, since she grew up reading a lot of fairy tales and fantasy books. Plus, the contrast between a thinner and heavier Bob, as a result of his choices, was easily shown through illustrations, which were created by her graphic design partner and boyfriend Tony Tran.

After working together to create the book — she writes, he draws — the two read their story to second-graders at two elementary schools to get some feedback. The response was overwhelmingly positive: The kids liked the story and correctly answered questions about what happened to Bob after he did certain things.

Now, Lin hopes to expand her book draft through a Kickstarter campaign that would allow her to publish the picture book. Since it was launched in February, the project has raised more than $2,000, though it’s still short of its $3,200 goal. If successful, the Kickstarter campaign would allow her to produce and sell official copies of the book. It would also help encourage her to continue working on a series of stories about Bob in time for September, National Obesity Month.

Originally, the story idea was conceived as a storytelling mobile app. It won second place at Philly Startup Weekend 2013, where it received a lot of positive feedback and encouragement.

“I wasn’t sure if this idea would stick, so I just pitched it to see if we could,” Lin said.

She then submitted the pitch to the Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship’s 2013 Baiada Business Incubator Competition, where it was one of 12 groups selected to make it past the first screening.

“Overall, it was the sum of the all these experiences, exposure and skills that I gained that gave me the knowledge and motivation to continue working on my product,” she said.

The feedback and questions posed by the mentors and judges helped her realize that her idea could have a better audience and reach as a book that could be easily read and accessed by kids.

“We might go back to the app, but we don’t even know if we could,” she said.

Lin has also worked with the Drexel community by reaching out to the nutrition program in the Drexel Recreation Center to receive feedback on her work. She’s also in talks with the American Heart Association, the Center City District and Sister Cities Park, as well as other local elementary schools, to introduce more kids to Bob the time traveler.

If the superhero-style time management, writing and creativity that Lin used for her first book were any indication, you don’t need to be a time traveler to see that she likely has a bright, and healthy, future in front of her.