Learning the lingo of research

Program links scientists, community to improve public health

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Graduates of the Community Research Fellows Training program celebrate during an Aug. 8 ceremony on the Washington University Medical Campus. Among them are (from left): Darleen Dansby, DNP, the Rev. Vickie Caldwell, Teresa Brandon, Melody Bojang and James Andrew.

Understanding a new language can take years. Students of Melody Goodman, PhD, were conversant after 15 weeks.

The 45 students — area residents and graduates of the Community Research Fellows Training program — learned the language of academic researchers, the role of research and how the two groups can work together to improve community health.

“The importance of the program is as simple as this: communities trying to work with research professionals,” said Michelle Hill of St. Louis, one of 45 who graduated from the program this month. “It’s important to be able to get funding for different disparities, but you need to know how to present it from the researchers’ and community members’ views. Professionals see it one way, and we see it another way.”

By completing the 45-hour course, Hill and her fellow graduates are better qualified to serve as liaisons between researchers and the larger community, serving on institutional review boards and community research advisory boards. Graduates also are eligible to apply for small pilot grants to conduct community-based participatory research of their own. The idea is that data collected from the projects could demonstrate need and effectiveness and might attract larger grants for tackling health-related problems.

“The value of community members participating in research is well-known, but how we get them to participate in research is something we don’t know,” said Goodman, assistant professor in Washington University School of Medicine’s Division of Public Health Sciences. “This program is one step in educating community members about research so when we ask them to engage in partnerships they have a sense of what they’re actually engaging in.”

Goodman piloted the Community Research Fellows Training program at Stony Brook University in New York, where she previously taught. There, program graduates launched two research projects:

•   Learning where residents of a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood received health care, or if they knew where to obtain it.

•   Sharing healthy eating tips with African-American women, including ways to prepare food on the go.

In St. Louis, Goodman worked with members of a community advisory board to develop review criteria for applications. Prospective students were chosen based on their applications, resumes and reference letters.

Grant proposals from the graduates are due this month; approved projects will begin in January. Funding comes from Siteman Cancer Center’s Program to Eliminate Cancer Disparities, the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health.

“Melody’s really pushed us to broaden the scope of our teaching, to embrace this program that has been so successful,” said Graham Colditz, MD, DrPH, the Niess-Gain Professor of Surgery, deputy director of the Institute for Public Health and associate director of prevention and control at the Siteman Cancer Center. “By working together, we will achieve an improvement in well-being for our population here in St. Louis.”

Paulette Sankofa, EdD, another graduate of the program, originally planned to use what she learned to study aging, but while taking the class, she found herself living in a shelter. Now she wants to study barriers for homeless women ages 45-64.

“We need to know from the women who are experiencing homelessness what the key things are that they need in order to help other women not become homeless and to learn what they need while they’re homeless,” Sankofa said.

Hill said she plans to apply for a grant to further her volunteer work at Faith Communities United, a nonprofit dedicated to educating African Americans about HIV and AIDS prevention. She said the group, which speaks regularly with members of about 30 churches, has long known its purpose and audience. However, learning about data collection and other aspects of research through Community Research Fellows Training will help improve the nonprofit’s efforts, she said.

“Now we’ve got a different kind of lingo, a different kind of approach,” Hill said.

Researchers gain, too, by having community members who can speak to both audiences, Hill said.

“I appreciate researchers better now because I see what they’re trying to do,” she said. “They need us to get their messages across because we can talk in down-to-earth language. They get stuck sometimes talking quantitatively.”

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