Providing breast cancer screening to women with severe mental illness. Preventing the use of opioids among adolescents by testing the effectiveness of interventions on social media. Ensuring ethnically diverse neighborhoods have access to online health information. Addressing bias in algorithms for diagnosing and supporting mental health. Using sensors and common-sense strategies to manage indoor air quality. These are just a few examples of the 14 innovative and interdisciplinary projects the new Rutgers Community Design for Health and Wellness - Interdisciplinary Research Group (CDHW-IRG) is funding to directly link research to community-based concerns in New Jersey for improved health and wellness of their residents.
CDHW-IRG has provided seed funding to 14 projects, selected through competitive review, that have proposed novel approaches to addressing classic “upstream” issues that can impact personal health and community well-being, such as the social-physical-economic environment, behaviors, health services, biology and genetics, and public policy. While each project addresses different community health concerns, all projects focus on the role of information and communication as a determinant of health and well-being. The complexity of the issues addressed requires interdisciplinary research that takes a design attitude that values working with communities to solve multi-dimensional problems.
A key element of each project is how community partners are connected with academic researchers and health practitioners from across Rutgers University. The CDHW-IRG highlights the critical role of community partners in defining a practical problem to be addressed and in participating with relevant academic expertise to co-design research-based solutions for communities.
Community partners interface daily with residents of New Jersey communities in a variety of ways, so they are often the first to identify and frame problems that can be solved with the assistance of Rutgers academics. The academic members of the CDHW-IRG represent a broad cross-section of expertise from Rutgers in health, medical, social, information, and computing sciences. Working together, the community partners and academic members will address local community issues, while generating academic research, ultimately resulting in support from funding agencies in addition to CDHW-IRG, which can lead to positive health outcomes even beyond the local communities where the problems were initially identified and addressed.
Examples of a few of the research projects CDHW-IRG is supporting with seed funding originated from two Rutgers schools, the Rutgers School of Social Work and the Rutgers School of Communication and Information.
Two faculty members from the School of Social Work have launched innovative projects across New Jersey. Victoria Banyard received funding for her project “Project Dream, Own, Tell: Feasibility of Engaging Significant Adults in Teen Sexual/Dating Violence.” Her project seeks to ensure that “preventative initiatives lead to reductions in exposure and are grounded in experiences of marginalized youth who acutely bear this health burden.” Associate Professor Emily Greenfield will develop an interactive community mapping tool that will advance age-friendly policies, programs, and planning in Bergen and Somerset Counties in New Jersey. The map will be used to inform policy makers and professional staff working with at risk older adults to develop strategies to support aging in place.
Projects stemming from the Rutgers School of Communication and Information were initiated and are being managed by three faculty members in the Department of Library and Information Science. These projects include “Towards Fairness in Mental Health Prediction Apps by Assistant Professor Kaitlin Costello. This project seeks to identify and address disparities in automated mobile mental health prediction.
Assistant Professor Sunyoung Kim is working with community partner Peter Rose, the Managing Director of Isles, Inc. on a project titled “Online Health Access in Ethnically Diverse Communities.” They seek to address the challenges that culturally and ethnically diverse communities in New Jersey, particularly the aging populations and immigrants, have accessing health information online.
Assistant Professor Charles Senteio is collaborating with community partners Camila Comer-Carruthers, Manager, Community Education at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital; Kavita Pandey, Librarian at the New Brunswick Free Public Library; and Teresa Vivar, Founding Executive Director of Lazos America Unida, on a joint project titled “Investigating Facilitators and Barriers to Health Information: Collaborating with New Brunswick Organizations to Describe Health Information Needs of New Jersey Residents.” They will address and find solutions to the barriers to health information that contribute to health disparities experienced by low-socioeconomic and ethnic minority populations in New Brunswick and Camden, N.J.
Other CDHW-IRG approved projects include “STrengthen Opioid Prevention Project (STOPP): Developing a Social Media Intervention to Prevent Use,” by Cynthia Ayres, associate professor at the Rutgers Camden School of Nursing; “Screening for Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) in the Medical Intensive Care Unit” by Sabiha Hussain, M.D., Department of Medicine at Rutgers Health; and work by Lewis Bivona, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers-Camden, who will use the funding to examine little-known “agrihoods.” (For a full list of projects and descriptions, please see the CDHW website.)
The co-directors of CDHW-IRG are Mark Aakhus, Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Communication at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, and Sarah Allred, Faculty Director of the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs and Associate Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University – Camden. “ A key outcome is to facilitate robust community solutions and quality research scholarship that will in turn attract support from foundations, state and federal agencies to sustain the projects and enable broader impact,” Aakhus said.
Aakhus and Allred developed the concept for the CDHW-IRG to foster cutting-edge and sustainable solutions to many serious health challenges New Jersey communities are facing. Their idea won a competitive challenge by the Office of Research and Economic Development (ORED) at Rutgers to form interdisciplinary research groups. The CDHW-IRG is now sponsored by ORED, the School of Communication and Information; Rutgers University-Camden; the Cancer Institute of New Jersey; and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
“We appreciate the opportunity to support the important and innovative work taking place in our local communities by strengthening academic-community research partnerships,” Allred said. “At Rutgers, we understand that research is not just about expanding the frontiers of knowledge in the laboratory but also building collaborative partnerships in the community that can advance practical, research-based solutions for population health issues. The CDHW-IRG is an exciting example of how these types of partnerships can present valuable benefits to the academic community and the people of New Jersey.”