A ‘Science Fair’ for Community Research

Research can be a powerful tool, so Drexel professors recently participated in an annual event aimed at forming mutually-beneficial partnerships between community organizations and academics.
Drexel participated in the 5th Annual Community Driven Research Day
Drexel participated in the 5th Annual Community Driven Research Day

One organization proposed tracking gun sales through a Philadelphia neighborhood. Another proposed exploring the mental health issues foreclosures have on older demographics. A third suggested a look into the merits of family-based health education in North Philadelphia.

In all, 27 community organizations gathered to seek mutual partnerships with academics from Drexel and partnering institutions last Thursday as a part of Community Driven Research Day.

One attendee described it as looking “like a science fair.” Researchers walked through a room where the organizations presented posters to pitch ideas for research that they believe will aid the neighborhoods or demographics they serve.

Community Driven Research Day is the beginning of a competitive pilot grant-awarding process.

For the five year-old, annual event, Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia all partner together.

This year, Community Driven Research Day was held at Temple’s Howard Gittis Student Center. Drexel hosted the event in 2013.

Although pricey, research can be invaluable to community organizations.

“The better you understand what you want to get through research, the better you’re going to be able to serve your community,” said Sam Myers, of the Camden Area Health Education Center (AHEC).

Each organization brought research questions forward as part of their presentation, ensuring discussions and potential collaborations begin from community-based questions rather than coming from academics. Myers’ questions dealt with the possibility of expanding an already-existing program screening for sexually transmitted diseases.

Because some of the sexually transmitted diseases don’t show up on genital screening, which Myers’ organization already does, he proposed screening in other areas of the body where infections may exist to cut down on their spread.

Alexis Roth, PhD, a faculty member in the School of Public Health’s Department of Community Health and Prevention, shares Myers’ interest in promoting public health and hopes to help with his research goals.

She said Community Driven Research Day is a novel concept. 

“Very infrequently are there cases in which community organizations can identify a need and put together a collaboration with researchers,” Roth said. “It’s an incredible process.”

Following the event, a call for proposals is released for awarding grants of up to $10,000 for partnerships from each institution with community organizations.

Funding for Drexel faculty projects and the review and selection process is led by the Office of the Senior Vice Provost for Research. Past awards to Drexel faculty include: Jennifer Nasser, PhD, from the College of Nursing and Health Professions (2014); Kathleen Fisher, PhD, also of the College of Nursing and Health Professions (2013); and Nicole Vaughn, PhD, of the School of Public Health (2012).

Roth said the process for seeking grants from national funders can often take years, but the Community Driven Research Day mechanism cuts that time into a fraction.

 “This is a wonderful opportunity, a marketplace to show off the potential of what an academic and community partnership can be,” said Shannon Marquez, PhD, the director of global public health initiatives at Drexel. “We’re interested in having a purpose and this is a good opportunity to showcase that, through partnerships, we can all work on mutually beneficial goals.”

Amy Confair, the community research and policy associate in the School of Public Health Office for Research, was one of Drexel’s representatives organizing the event.

“Many great relationships start at Community Driven Research Day. Professors are interested in doing more community-based work and community-based organizations are eager for additional resources and capacity,” Confair said of the event. “It’s a co-learning experience, and we receive a lot of positive feedback each year.”

Félice Lê-Scherban, PhD, another faculty member in the School of Public Health, came to Drexel for that exact reason. 

“I just think it’s a really innovative and interesting model I’ve never seen before,” said Lê-Scherban, who specializes in epidemiology and biostatistics. “I’ve never actually seen people go to the community and say, ‘OK, what do you want?’ and bring the researchers and kind of flip the roles.”

Lê-Scherban was intrigued by an idea pitched by the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, which consists of having doctors prescribe pediatric patients prescriptions for regular trips to parks.

Megan McCoy, the director of grant research and development for the Center in the Park, a Germantown-based senior community center, said research can be a form of “advocacy” for the various community organization causes.

“It’s a huge impact, especially if you can collaborate with a researcher and have an ongoing relationship and be involved in projects over time,” according to McCoy.

More than anything, Roth said Community Driven Research Day gives academics the opportunity to get into the foundation of an organization and provide an impact by doing research to better serve the agency’s clients.

“I think that helps the process because people can see that your research questions are grounded in what the community is saying they need,” Roth said. “The goal is to have results that more seamlessly translate downstream to larger-scale programs and evidence-based health policies that can effect real change.”