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Taking research to the community

Community outreach training
Steve Zylius / University Communications
UC Irvine students Daniel Keady (left) and Andrew Le undergo observational training with alumna Denise Dabu at the campus’s Early Childhood Education Center for a preschool obesity prevention pilot with Orange County Head Start.

New center facilitates collective effort to address Orange County healthcare issues

With last year’s $20 million Clinical & Translational Science Award, researchers with UC Irvine’s Institute for Clinical & Translational Science advanced efforts to turn scientific discoveries into new methods, treatments and cures to improve public health. And now they’ve created a way for the community to get more involved.

With a supplemental $1 million grant from federal stimulus funds, the ICTS has established the Orange County Center for Community Health Research. The center provides a framework for community-based groups to organize their own research on issues — such as childhood obesity, diabetes and poverty — that affect populations they serve.

“It allows UCI for the first time to have researchers engage with the community in a really meaningful way,” says Dr. Dan Cooper, director of the ICTS and the Orange County Center for Community Health Research. “We now have the infrastructure to build real collaborations — to have meetings, training opportunities and ways to respond to community interests. These resources can go a long way toward creating viable partnerships.”

The center —whose members include UC Irvine, the Orange County Health Care Agency, Share Our Selves, the Children & Families Commission of Orange County, and California State University, Fullerton — doesn’t fund any specific studies but acts as a resource hub for community-based research in the county.

It provides Web-based training and videoconferencing, team-building workshops and other services to facilitate networking, education and mentoring between the university and the public. Uniquely, the center also functions as a clearinghouse for Orange County healthcare data from participating studies that can be shared among community groups.

“This infrastructure should have a major public health impact as a model for information dissemination,” Cooper says. “Our model will help improve community engagement and substantially accelerate efforts to reduce health disparities.”

Margaret Schneider, associate researcher in planning, policy & design, says center resources have been beneficial in her current study, a collaboration with Orange County Head Start to see whether diet and exercise can turn the tide against obesity among youngsters in the federal program.

She and her team are monitoring children at the county’s 40 Head Start day care sites, and Schneider credits the new ICTS center with training student observers to analyze the effect of Head Start’s diet and exercise guidelines.

The results of the study, she says, will help her in seeking federal funding for a larger-scale study of obesity intervention in preschools.

“I’ve found that with community-based research, the key ingredient is trust,” Schneider says. “The new center’s approach is very encouraging, and I see it making a huge difference.”

This isn’t the first attempt to unify community-based research, notes Alyce Mastrianni, program development & evaluation director for the Children & Families Commission of Orange County and an Orange County Center for Community Health Research organizer. In the mid-1990s, county-based groups formed a nonprofit to coordinate and carry out health research projects.

“That effort never moved forward,” she says. “But this grant and this center will supply all the resources and organization we needed back then. UC Irvine is a great partner for community-based research, and this provides an exceptional opportunity to work together.”

— Tom Vasich, University Communications