Trio of local students present at National 4-H Conference

East Tennesseans Austin Ramsey, Elizabeth Sutphin and Amanda Higgins present data regarding obesity at a GIS conference in San Diego.

East Tennesseans Austin Ramsey, Elizabeth Sutphin and Amanda Higgins present data regarding obesity at a GIS conference in San Diego.

By Gary Gray

Three young East Tennesseans have combined their curiosities with the latest geographical information systems (GIS) technology to pinpoint where obesity rates are highest, as well as the specific conditions contributing to the southeastern epidemic.

Austin Ramsey, a Sullivan Central High School graduate and current East Tennessee State University student, Amanda Higgins, a senior at Unicoi County High School and Elizabeth Sutphin, a home-schooled high school junior from Erwin, gave the colorful presentation in July at a GIS conference in San Diego, California, as representatives of Tennessee’s National 4-H GIS/GPS Leadership Team.

The three enterprising youngsters compiled a wealth of data and plotted their findings on a map of the United States. The color-coded results showed that Tennessee and the Southeast are by far the most heavily populated area containing people with obesity.

The trio gathered data available on various websites, interviewed national and local health professionals, and then decided to look at four factors they believed may be contributors to obesity: Diabetes, lack of access to exercise, food insecurity and children living in poverty.

“We asked each other what we were most passionate about, and the group consensus was health,” Ramsey said. “We were able to locate ‘hot spots’ in the Southeast by utilizing a combination of software tools, as well as areas with low obesity rates. We examined each state and each county to identify locales with the highest rates.

“When we looked at the data and noticed how big the problem was, that made us want to look closer. We’re actually working to form a partnership with the public to serve as an awareness tool. Seeing that data alone made me think, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got a problem.’”

The team plans to stay active and continue adding factors to better define the root causes of obesity. Team members agreed that this task will be a lasting, multi-year project.

“As you can see, these three high school students did a fantastic job,” said Johnson City’s GIS Coordinator Link Elmore, who attended the conference and was surprised at the group’s professionalism. “The video doesn’t do it justice, but this was in front of an audience of 16,000 attendees. This was a huge international stage and kids from our area were shining bright and made us look good.”

“I started on Unicoi County’s GIS team when I was in the 7th grade,” Higgins said. “Last year a group of us made a map of the Nolichucky River’s lower section, and it won the state GIS top award.”

Higgins said new software and other tools made the obesity project much easier for the three-member team.

“We want to expand the project to include a lot of other factors,” she said. “I want to be a dietitian, and this could help my understanding of the demographics I’ll be working with.”

Sutphin said the latest project began by painstakingly gathering information from “spreadsheet to spreadsheet.”

“We wanted to put it on a map that helps you really see the correlation,” she said. “Our goal was and will be to help with obesity. We began by looking at the conditions involved, and we all agreed to begin with those four factors. We all want to get information out to the public.”

To view the presentation, visit  For a closer look at the team’s findings, go to


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