PEPH meeting strengthens community-engaged research networks
By Dustin Russell
NIEHS Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) grantees assembled March 7-8 at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md., for their annual meeting titled “Strengthening a dynamic environmental public health network for tomorrow: Advancing science through critical reflection.” The two-day meeting included a variety of activities designed to promote grantee interactions, foster group learning, and, most importantly, spark dialogue about issues related to research translation, capacity building, and communication.
Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., NIEHS/NTP director, opened the meeting by emphasizing the Institute’s continued engagement with communities to advance environmental public health. “I am extremely supportive of all of our activities that involve the community,” she said. “We cannot do environmental health work unless the community is involved from the get-go.”
PEPH grantees, including Pam Miller, founder of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, and Sacoby Wilson, Ph.D., environmental health scientist from the University of Maryland, then took the stage to highlight community partnerships addressing health issues related to populations that are overburdened and disproportionately affected by environmental contamination. Presenters offered models for successful partnerships addressing environmental health concerns in low-income and minority communities, the workplace, and among tribal populations. They illustrated challenges within the realm of community-engaged research and offered innovative approaches to resolving these challenges.
In addition to traditional scientific and poster presentations, the meeting featured training sessions on PEPH evaluation metrics, innovative environmental health outreach tools, such as theatrical performances, materials development, and a healthy hospitals initiative.
Breakout sessions highlight trust building, communication
Nine interactive breakout sessions further illuminated important lessons and recommendations on how greater effectiveness can be achieved within the PEPH program and for community-engaged research as a whole.
Trust building emerged as a major theme across the breakout groups. Participants identified the early involvement of community partners as essential to ensuring that researchers and community participants have a mutual understanding of the project and its goals, as well as the roles and responsibilities of each partner, thereby developing a greater sense of trust. In addition, the formation of equitable, long-term partnerships was recognized as central to fostering trust.
Multidirectional education and training surfaced as a second central theme in the breakout sessions. Participants noted that researchers, communities, and Institutional Review Boards all need specialized training to implement community-engaged research approaches more effectively.
Participants cited the value of communication training for researchers, to equip them with knowledge and tools to effectively incorporate input and communicate findings to the community in ways that acknowledge cultural, linguistic, and literacy variation among communities. Similarly, communities can become valuable agents of data collection that help to define environmental health concerns in particular communities. Attendees agreed that translation strategies must consider and utilize new and various channels of communication, such as multimedia and social media, to amplify environmental health messages.
Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT), closed the meeting by thanking the participants for their enthusiastic participation. She noted, “PEPH continues to be a participatory program at every level.” She also said that community-engaged research will continue to evolve, as researchers and communities come together to share ideas and experiences. “Through active feedback,” she concluded, “the power of our network can only increase.”
(Dustin Russell is a contractor with MDB, Inc. supporting the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)
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