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Environmental Factor, April 2012

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PEPH meeting strengthens community-engaged research networks

By Dustin Russell

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Myra Marie Tetteh, program coordinator for the Community Outreach and Education Core at the University of Michigan

Myra Marie Tetteh, program coordinator for the Community Outreach and Education Core at the University of Michigan, is one of many grantees engaged in community outreach and education. (Photo courtesy of Liam O’Fallon)

Gwen Collman, Ph.D. and Marie Lynn Miranda, Ph.D.

Networking is a critical component of every successful PEPH meeting. Collman is pictured, left, with Marie Lynn Miranda, Ph.D., dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Liam O’Fallon)

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.)

Liam O’Fallon and Jennifer Runkle, Ph.D.

Liam O’Fallon, right, is the lead for PEPH, which serves to foster dynamic connections on common approaches and strategies among environmental health researchers and practitioners. Pictured with O’Fallon is Jennifer Runkle, Ph.D., from Emory University. (Photo courtesy of Liam O’Fallon)

Kristi Pettibone, Ph.D.

A popular component of the PEPH meeting was the option for participants to attend training sessions to hear about the latest evaluation and communication techniques. Kristi Pettibone, Ph.D., from the DERT Program Analysis Branch, facilitated a discussion about the new PEPH Evaluation Metrics Manual. (Photo courtesy of Liam O’Fallon)

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