Student & ECR spotlights – Meet Andre Matthias Müller, interested in improving physical activity and other health behaviors in Asian populations using technology

Please tell us about your career pathway to date.  

My career pathway to date is quite colourful as I have been at a number of very different places. I started off in my hometown of Magdeburg, Germany where I completed my Bachelor and Master degree in Sport Science before moving to South Korea for a lectureship in Physical Education (University of Suwon). 

In 2013 I joined the Sports Centre at the University of Malaya in Malaysia where I pursued my PhD studies on mobile health for physical activity promotion. Following the completion of my PhD my next stop was the Health Psychology Group at the University of Southampton, UK. There I worked as a research fellow on various digital health projects. Missing the good food, great weather and everything else that is lovable about (South-East) Asia I made efforts to come back. Currently, I am research fellow at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, at the National University of Singapore where I focus on physical activity in Asian populations. 

How would you briefly describe your current research/job to someone who is not familiar with your field of study/work? What is your main research interest? 

My role involves researching on how to use modern technologies to collect data on and ultimately improve physical activity and other health behaviors in Singaporeans and Asians at large. For example, we are working on projects in which we want to use smartphones, trackers and other technologies to collect health behavior (physical activity, diet) and contextual data to understand how to impact behavioral health. In these projects, I am interested in the influence of individual (e.g., self-efficacy, mood), interpersonal (e.g., social environment), and environmental factors on physical activity. To understand more about physical activity behaviors at the population level I am also involved in collaborative research with the Health Promotion Board Singapore that implemented the National Steps Challenge in which more than 600k people received an activity tracker. With the insights from all these projects we aim to design interventions that support people to change their health behaviors in real-time.


What are the main barriers you encounter when conducting research, or what information/skills do you lack to conduct high quality research? 

As technology plays a major role in my work a great difficulty is to find partners that help us in developing the necessary tools. Of course, there are many potential partners but it is often not easy to match interests and to align work schedules. In addition, I often face difficulties communicating with technology experts due to “different languages” we are used to. More skills and knowledge around technology development would surely help.

Another difficulty is to stay current in a fast moving field. For example, the sheer volume of new publications and research tools is sometimes overwhelming, especially also because of the lack of time there is to actually read all what’s new. We recently published a paper in which we also looked into the growth of scientific output in e- & mHealth related to physical activity and nutrition, and we found a 25% increase of papers per year (in 2016 there were more than 300 papers). With this, keeping up can be very challenging.

Finally, academia is a busy place to be in. Finding a right balance between reading/writing, applying for grants, running projects, doing some admin and teaching is challenging. Fortunately, I have some great mentors who help me in finding my way through all of this.

What could help you as a student/ECR to further develop in your current position? 

I think growing my network within my current institution will be important to increase exposure to ideas/approaches but to also get involved in ongoing projects. This will also help me to be involved in grant writing and publishing, things that are quite essential to progress.

Taking on a leadership role is also something that will surely be important. Overseeing projects, taking responsibility, making important decisions and providing support and impulses to others in the team will help me maturing as a researcher. I am grateful that I am currently in a position where I can develop my leadership skills in small- and medium-scale projects.

What do you think will be the next most important development in the nutrition and/or physical activity field? 

As in many other fields technology will play a key role in future nutrition and physical activity research. Just-in-time adaptive interventions (JITAIs) that are still in its infancy will likely become very important in behavioral health promotion as researchers realize that behavior happens in the moment. So, with new sensors a lot of relevant information can be collected and, at the same time used to support people in their quest for a healthy lifestyle.

Unfortunately, I am more pessimistic when I think about where such research will most likely be mainly conducted: Europe, North America and Australia. This is a bit unsatisfying as many countries in, for example, South-East Asia face tremendous chronic disease challenges that could be addressed with technology-based behavioral research.

Email: [email protected]Twitter handle: @Andre_M_Muller