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In March it was announced that the Arizona State University Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center (SIRC) would be receiving roughly $1.5 million to follow up on a long-term study of obese Latino youth that showed sustained improvements in the overall health and risk factors of those who underwent a diabetes prevention intervention.
Vital to the success of the initial study were the organizations that collaborated with ASU — including St. Vincent de Paul, YMCA, Phoenix Children’s Hospital and Mountain Park Health Center — exchanging resources and knowledge in order to deliver the intervention program to Valley residents and make a real, measurable impact on the community.
Gabriel Shaibi, an associate professor at ASU’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation and principal investigator, was instrumental in establishing and maintaining those partnerships.
“The initial partnership has really created a networking vehicle for me to ask bigger questions and have more of a lasting impact by bringing in additional partners and creating stronger networks around the work we do for diabetes prevention,” Shaibi said.
The second phase of the study, to be conducted over the next five years, will once again bring together a diverse group of investigators and community partners to focus specifically on contextual factors, such as how one’s family, home and neighborhood influence health trajectories during the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Shaibi recently spoke with ASU Now about the dynamics of university-community organization partnerships.
Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Question: How did this collaboration begin?
Answer: I met the former clinical director of St. Vincent de Paul at a community health coalition for diabetes. That was my first introduction to their Family Wellness Program, which has a focus on diabetes prevention, particularly in high-risk Latino families. The director invited me to meet the rest of the team and get to know the work that they’re doing because she thought that there was a natural opportunity for collaboration around our mutual interests in diabetes prevention.
At the very beginning, it was just about listening to each other to determine what each other’s needs were. They identified some very specific, tangible requests that they thought we could help them with as far as evaluating their program and adding credibility to it by having an academic partner who can say that this is actually working and here’s the evidence, and also to help build on their program and increase the physical activity component. For me, my desire was to really think about ways to have the research that we do have a broader impact in the communities that we work with so that it doesn’t just end up as a publication but has a tangible impact on individuals and families.
Q: How has it evolved?
A: When we did an evaluation of the original program, one of the key predictors of its success was the ability of the kids to maintain the exercise program. That’s a challenge for a medical clinic, so we had to think about how to get the program outside of the medical clinic and into a community-based organization that promotes physical activity. That led us to connect with the YMCA. We also needed highly specialized medical personnel to do things like take glucose measurements, so that led to us connecting with Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Basically, we discovered along the way that we needed more partners. So now we have a network of collaborators working toward a very complex goal.
Q: How does the collaboration benefit both the partners and the community?
A: Looking back, for me, the partnership has allowed me to become a much better scientist. It has extended the questions that we’re asking beyond my wildest dreams. The initial partnership has really created a networking vehicle for me to ask bigger questions and have more of a lasting impact by bringing in additional partners and creating stronger networks around the work we do for diabetes prevention. Collectively we can do so much more because there are so many more individuals involved and so many more conversations happening.
In vulnerable and underserved populations, having resources for information and services connected integrally and available from organizations you already trust is huge. It gives the community opportunities for health promotion and disease prevention that they might not otherwise have access to.
Q: What university assets have you been able to leverage?
A: We’ve been able to garner some financial support to make sure the program is able to grow, and we utilize the clinical research unit within the College of Health Solutions. So we’ve been able to leverage the university infrastructure in regards to funding and having a place to do the work. But probably most importantly, ASU is of the mindset that this type of work is valuable. It closely aligns with President Crow’s design aspirations for the New American University; he said this is what we should be doing as an institution, bringing in partners, training students, defining our work by the impact it makes and who we do it with. That is unique.
Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered?
A: The biggest challenge is the disconnect between how quickly the community can act and how slow and methodical the research process is. So how do we make sure that the speed with which the community can do things is in line with the rigor that the academic research world has? Another challenge as a researcher is that if something isn’t working for the community, they stop doing it because it’s a waste of resources. But researchers need to figure out why it doesn’t work. Lastly, the sustainability of funding. How do we collectively make sure we have the necessary resources to keep successful programs going?
Q: What are the future implications of this work?
A: I see it as a kind of leverage point for us to inform policies related to health promotion and disease prevention, particularly in underserved communities. It also serves as a pipeline for the next generation of practitioners, researchers and community partners who will be well-informed to carry this work out beyond the individuals we’re currently engaged with and be agents of change for their community.
Q: Do you have any advice for others interested in developing similar collaborations?
A: Listen to the community and the community partners and continue to ask what else could we do together and who else do we need at the table. It’s a team approach, and the team is defined by the researchers, the community partners, the students and the staff who really buy into the idea of something bigger than any one individual entity.
Top photo: Associate Professor Gabriel Shaibi speaks with Estela Barraza, MS program director for ASU Sun Devil Fitness, during an event at the A.E. England building on the Downtown Phoenix campus on March 15. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now