There’s a difference between simply including in a research study the people a scientist wants to help and partnering with those people in the research process. That’s a lesson Dr. Deepa Sekhar learned while studying ways to better detect high-frequency noise-induced hearing loss in teenagers. She will continue to learn how to more effectively accomplish the latter through the year-long, Community-Engaged Research Core Faculty Fellowship of Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute.
The Community-Engaged Research Core Faculty Fellowship Program matches a researcher with a mentor and protects work time for research – important for a busy clinician helping patients. Community-engaged research meets the needs of the community by involving those who have an interest in improving health. This can include a community and its members, patients, clinicians, researchers, purchasers, payers, industry, hospitals and health systems, training institutions and policy makers. Applications are now being accepted for next year’s program.
“Despite my research background, community-engaged research has been a new experience for me,” Sekhar, associate professor of pediatrics, said. “My prior work with schools and how to improve screening for adolescent hearing loss has primarily been in the context of conducting a study with a specific research question driven by my medical background. I am learning the complexity of engaging with communities as research partners.”
Sekhar’s current research project’s goal is to partner with communities to improve adolescent mental health and prevent negative outcomes like suicide or poor academic performance. Sekhar believes the fellowship will give her the time and guidance to build community connections.
“I hope to better anticipate how my work can mutually benefit my academic interests and the needs of partnering communities,” she said. “In the long run, I believe this type of research model is most likely to be sustainable and valuable to the children and adolescents I care for.”
She came to appreciate the importance of community-engaged research after one of her research projects was funded by the Penn State Social Science Research Institute and Children, Youth and Families Consortium. Through this funding, focus groups about physical and mental wellness of children were held with parents, school staff and medical providers. The comments and ideas of focus group participants regarding mental health opened a whole new perspective on how to frame a research question to best address the concerns of patients and their communities.
“The focus groups emphasized for me the limitations of my perspective as a medical provider and the crucial need to include community partners for a community-based research project to be successful,” she said. “At the most basic level, I found translating my research questions to a simple, straightforward request that was understandable to a school administrator required background in the challenges facing that individual school system.”
Dr. Jennifer Kraschnewski, associate professor of medicine, pediatrics and public health sciences and co-director of the Community Engaged Research Core, said that Sekhar’s research project was a good fit for the fellowship program.
“Dr. Sekhar’s interest in partnering with the community to advance the science of mental health research made her application particularly of interest to the Community-Engaged Research Core,” Kraschnewski, who also is Sekhar’s mentor, said. “Public health epidemics, like suicide among adolescents, cannot be addressed without the community having a voice at the table. The faculty fellowship will provide her with research time and mentorship to advance her understanding of community engaged research and further her work in this important area.”
Sekhar’s research is looking for ways to improve mental health in teenagers while addressing differences in how clinical depression is screened and treated differently for certain populations. For example, screening for clinical depression occurs in less than 2 percent of primary care office visits and is 80 percent less likely for Hispanic compared to non-Hispanic white teenagers; minorities and girls are less likely to receive treatment. She will compare the effectiveness of universal versus targeted adolescent clinical depression screening in the school setting. She has proposed universal screening in partnership with schools because schools are more likely than the medical setting to engage adolescents across a broad spectrum of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
“Dr. Sekhar’s fellowship will also provide new community partner connections for the Community-Engaged Research Core, specifically schools and mental health-focused organizations,” Kraschnewski said. “Unfortunately, suicide is the number two cause of death in youth today. Dr. Sekhar’s work in mental health among adolescents provides an opportunity to address this important public health epidemic. ”
Added Martha Wadsworth, professor of psychology, and co-director of the core, “We had very strong candidates for the fellowship. Dr. Sekhar’s application did an excellent job detailing how the fellowship will help her research grow in important ways, and how the relationship with her mentor will play an integral role in that.”
Engaging the community as partners is important not only for more effective research, but also for reaching the goals of the Community-Engaged Research Core of the institute.
“Engaging effectively with local communities to conduct research that is respectful of and responsive to the needs of community members is critical to advance the goals of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute and its Community-Engaged Research Core,” Wadsworth said. “Building the relationships and coalitions needed to support this research adds multiple layers of complexity. Learning from an experienced mentor about how to collaborate with communities, understand their needs, and design responsive studies can help less experienced investigators avoid common pitfalls and be more successful in launching their own community-engaged studies.”
Any junior or mid-level faculty member or established research scientist at any Penn State campus is eligible to apply for the fellowship. Applications are accepted through Nov. 1. More can be learned about the fellowship and community-engaged research in general at a panel discussion at the institute’s "Bench to Bedside and Beyond" Seminar Series at noon on Sept. 24. Learn more about this seminar here.
Wadsworth said a successful fellow will have a well-thought-out project in mind.
“One year is not a lot of time in the research world,” she said. “To be successful, the mentor-mentee team will need to develop a detailed plan for the work, including identifying a targeted community partner, prior to beginning the fellowship. They need to be able to hit the ground running and not spend valuable time during the fellowship figuring out where to focus.”
The Community-Engaged Research Core offers consultations for researchers wanting to better involve the community in their projects. Get more information on the Community-Engaged Research Core’s consultations here.