Gut Feelings

Campbell professor’s work on ‘gut-brain connections’ in children is widely known, thanks in part to her influence on social media

She’s an internationally recognized expert and researcher in the areas of gastrointestinal disorders and behavioral sciences, having published more than 200 articles on the subjects — 50 during her short time at Campbell University. But where Dr. Miranda van Tilburg stands out is her passion for the work.

It’s a big reason why she’s collected more than 17,000 followers on Twitter. And that passion is why she’s being recognized by her peers.

Van Tilburg, a professor of clinical research for Campbell’s College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences and chair of the University’s Institutional Research Board, was the recipient of this year’s D.P. Russ Jr. and Walter S. Jones Sr. Alumni Award for Research Excellence. Her work focuses on the epidemiology, psycho-social aspects and behavioral interventions of gastrointestinal disorders, but she’s also a respected voice on all matters pertaining to the health and well-being of infants, children and teens.

In addition to her published works, van Tilburg has received several million dollars in grant funding and is an active participant in several national and international organizations, serving as an advisor to the Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency. Most recently, she was appointed to distribute more than $22 million in research funds as a reviewer for the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, part of the National Institute of Health.

The titles and the work all stem from her love of research. But it’s her desire to help children who are in pain that truly drives her.

“Research is my heart,” she says. “I love it. I absolutely think it’s fantastic that we live in a society that gets better because of research.”

That research, she says, can’t stay within its ivory tower. That’s why van Tilburg has taken to social media to not only share her work, but share the important research being done all over the world, especially when it comes to pediatric health. Van Tilbrug posts on Twitter daily — often multiple times a day — and her monthly reach is creeping toward the two million mark. On July 5 alone, she shared articles and posts on body shaming among teens; abdominal pain in children; gender bias when it comes to irritable bowel syndrome; COVID-19 and vaccine safety; and the difference between HIPAA, HIPPA and hippos (she has fun on social media, too).

“I stayed away from it professionally for a long time, because it’s often looked upon as a serious risk [for professors and research professionals],” she says. “But actually, more and more today, it’s been shown that those who share their papers and their work on social media will get more impact — not only just getting the word out, but more impact in the academic world, because many of your peers are on there, too.”

Social media has led to several collaborations with other researchers — she’s currently writing a paper with a professor in Japan and a trauma researcher from Brown University, both of whom she met via Twitter. Because of her visibility online, van Tilburg has been asked to be a guest on several podcasts and has been quoted in numerous news articles and medical blogs.

And it’s not all been health care or research related. Van Tilburg has used Twitter to share opinions on equality for women in the workplace and other social issues.

“I have strong feelings [on equality], and I think recently, people have become more aware of the challenges that still exist for women,” she says. “I have these strong feelings, because I have experienced inequality in my career, and I have seen others experience it. I don’t feel that I need to hide those strong opinions anymore, because I think it helps people to see them.”

Van Tilburg joined the faculty at Campbell University in 2017, and today she teaches research skills such as study design and medical writing. In addition to her own work, she is an advocate for student research, mentoring undergraduate and graduate students in a wide range of disciplines including medicine, nursing, public health, psychology and more. Her work is mostly focused on gastrointestinal disorders, or as she puts it, “the brain-gut connection.”

“The basic gist is our brain and our gut are connected,” she says. “For example, if you’re in love, you might feel ‘butterflies’ in your stomach, or if you’re nervous before a test, you might have to run to the bathroom. We feel a lot of things in our guts, because they are tightly connected to everything else. So when you have a gut disorder, we’ve learned that we can treat these symptoms by focusing on what’s going on in the brain.”

For years, researchers and doctors have believed issues like anxiety and depression have been a cause for things like irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, bloating or upset stomachs, but experts like van Tilburg are learning that it may be the other way around — that irritation in the gastrointestinal system can trigger mood changes and lead to other problems.

Her main focus in her research is disorders in young people. According to van Tilburg, one in four children in the United States suffer from some sort of gastrointestinal disorder. It’s extremely common, yet there are still very few treatments available for infants, children and teens. And experts like her have only scratched the surface.

“When I started my research about 20 years ago, there really wasn’t much at all out there for these children — a few treatments, but hardly any literature on the subject,” she says. “And it’s been so exciting to see the field grow in the past two decades. There’s a lot more people putting the work into it, and we’ve developed some very effective treatments for these children.

“It’s exciting to see your research really, truly help children suffering from this, and to see your research make a difference for them.”

Van Tilburg calls the Alumni Award for Research Excellence “a huge honor” and says she believes she was chosen not because of her work in the past year, but for her career as a whole up to this point. She came to Campbell after nearly four years as an associate professor of medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she currently remains an adjunct professor. She’s also an affiliate associate professor of social work at the University of Washington.

In her nomination letter for the research award, a colleague wrote that van Tilburg is quick to spread the wealth at Campbell — in addition to mentoring students, she has invited faculty from the College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences and the School of Osteopathic Medicine to be co-investigators and co-authors and has assisted them in writing grant applications.

“If you have ever had a discussion with Dr. van Tilburg, you will quickly recognize her conviction that discovery and research must be instilled in our students and fostered within our faculty,” they wrote. “When an accomplished individual sets time aside and takes active efforts to support others, it is impressive and notable.”

— by Billy Liggett