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Steinhardt Faculty Selected for NYU Aging Incubator Fellows Program

An older woman with short white hair in exercise clothes stretching one leg by leaning against an inclined surface.

The NYU Aging Incubator recently appointed four Steinhardt faculty to its Fellows Program: Associate Professor of Communicative Sciences and Disorders Sonja Molfenter, Associate Professor of Drama Therapy Nisha Sajnani, Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Smita Rao, and Associate Professor of Nutrition Kathleen Woolf. Associate Dean for Global Affairs and Experiential Learning and Clinical Professor of Nutrition Lisa Sasson also joined the project as a new steering committee member.

Convening faculty from across the University, the NYU Aging Incubator aims to support the development of interdisciplinary research initiatives and educational endeavors to improve the health and well-being of the oldest segment of our human population.

Steinhardt's latest additions to the NYU Aging Incubator are researching a wide range of aging-related challenges and solutions. Read on to learn more about their work in the space.

New Fellows

Dr. Sonja Molfenter

With a clinical background in speech-language pathology, Dr. Molfenter studies the identification and treatment of swallowing disorders, including age-related anatomical and physiological changes that can impact an individual’s ability to swallow. Leveraging funding from organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Molfenter’s research has confirmed that throat muscles are susceptible to losing muscle bulk and function (a process called sarcopenia) in the same way limb muscles do as adults age. Sarcopenia of the throat muscles has the potential to impact the nutrition, hydration, and general well-being of older adults. 

As a follow-up to this work, Dr. Molfenter is now collaborating with peer NYU Aging Incubator Fellow Dr. Kathleen Woolf to investigate exercise-based interventions for the swallowing muscles with dietary protein supplements. Drs. Molfenter and Woolf also recently conducted a cross-sectional analysis of the nutrition, physical function, and swallowing status of NYC seniors in conjunction with the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan.

Dr. Nisha Sajnani

As a researcher, artist, and educator, Dr. Sajnani is working to “flip the script” on aging. Dr. Sajnani developed a course on therapeutic theatre with a focus on aging in 2018 – as a part of the course, students partnered with residents of Penn South, a naturally occurring retirement community in New York, to rehearse and perform a pilot production of Fiddler on the Roof Sr. in 2019. A full documentary on the need for creative expression across the lifespan and a publication about the benefits of musical theatre for older adults are in the works.

Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Sajnani has continued to collaborate with Penn South using innovative tele-drama therapy programs involving students leading playwriting and stand-up comedy workshops to evoke the protective factors of humor and social connection during these isolating times.

Dr. Sajnani also leads the NYU Creative Arts Therapies Consortium and International Research Alliance which has led to collaborative research concerning older adults including this study illuminating the therapeutic mechanisms and outcomes of the creative arts therapies in the treatment of depression with older adults.

Nisha Sajnani

Associate Professor and Director, Drama Therapy Program

Dr. Smita Rao

Dr. Rao’s research examines the effects of movement-based interventions in individuals with chronic diseases such as osteoarthritis and diabetes, both of which widely impact older adults. Currently, Dr. Rao and collaborators are leveraging funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Foundation for Physical Therapy Research to examine the impact of exercise and physical therapist-led intervention in managing diabetes and diabetic complications. 

Dr. Rao also has substantial expertise in the assessment of gait and skeletal muscle function – two key markers of healthspan, or the part of a person’s life during which they are in good health. To Dr. Rao, the question of how aging enables disease is pivotal to understanding geroscience, healthspan, and age-related diseases.

Smita Rao

Associate Professor of Physical Therapy

Dr. Kathleen Woolf

Dr. Woolf’s research focuses on the integrated relationships of lifestyle behaviors like nutrition and physical activity with chronic diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, diabetes, cancer, and musculoskeletal and skin disorders. These diseases tend to influence the overall health and mental well-being of older adults by limiting function, increasing dependence on others, and increasing healthcare costs.

Dr. Woolf’s research incorporates the latest technology to assess dietary intake and physical activity patterns and deliver behavioral interventions that improve health outcomes for patients with complex chronic disease. In addition to publishing a range of scholarly works on the relationship of lifestyle behaviors to chronic disease in nutrition and public health journals, Dr. Woolf regularly gives community seminars and workshops on the relationship between lifestyle behaviors and chronic disease for older patients, caregivers, and other health/medical professionals through the NYU Langone Orthopedic Center and programs like the 92nd Street Y Himan Brown Senior Program.

Kathleen Woolf

Associate Professor; Director, Graduate Nutrition Program

New Steering Committee Member

Lisa Sasson

As a new member of the NYU Aging Incubator Steering Committee, Lisa Sasson will collaborate on making recommendations, providing resources, and reviewing and supporting NYU Aging Incubator activities. She teaches a variety of interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate courses focused on nutrition, including Nutrition through the Lifecycle, and works with the NYU dental faculty to advance nutrition and oral health in the dental curriculum. Directing Steinhardt's study abroad programs in Tuscany, Italy, and Tel Aviv, Israel, Lisa Sasson works to advance the Steinhardt community's understanding of the relationships between diet, food culture, nutrition, and overall health and wellbeing.

Lisa Sasson

Associate Dean for Global Affairs and Experiential Learning; Clinical Professor, Nutrition and Food Studies

Previously inducted Fellows from Steinhardt include Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy Tracy Chippendale. Explore the full list of NYU Aging Incubator Fellows, which spans schools across NYU.

Related Programs

Communicative Sciences and Disorders

The Communicative Sciences and Disorders Program offers rigorous training for students seeking high-quality education in speech-language pathology.

Drama Therapy

Translate your theatre skills and love for improvisation into culturally responsible, creative, and effective care in hospitals, shelters, schools, and more.

Nutrition and Dietetics

Degrees within the Nutrition and Dietetics program combine basic science, nutritional science, food science, and research to prepare you for many career paths.

Physical Therapy

NYU Steinhardt’s physical therapy program educates both aspiring PTs and licensed professionals seeking to specialize and advance their careers.