Fellows learn the importance of engaging the community in research

Applications now open for next year's Community-Engaged Research Fellowship Program
Dr. Nazia Raja-Kahn and Dr. Katie Amaral
Credit: Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Katie Amaral researches forensics; Dr. Nazia Raja-Khan studies the use of mindfulness for diabetes. While these are very different research topics, Amaral and Raja-Khan’s desire to help communities is a commonality that attracted both to Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute's Community-Engaged Research Core Faculty Fellowship.

The program expanded this year to include two Penn State faculty: Amaral from Penn State Berks and Raja-Khan from Penn State College of Medicine. It is now accepting applications for its next fellows.

The Community-Engaged Research Core Faculty Fellowship Program matches a researcher with a mentor and protects work time for research — essential for a busy clinician helping patients or an educator teaching students. Community-engaged research meets the needs of the community by involving those who have an interest in improving health. These can include a community and its members, patients, clinicians, researchers, purchasers, payers, industry, hospitals and health systems, training institutions and policymakers. It’s a way to help ensure that research is addressing the needs of those it is intended to help. 

Amaral, associate professor of chemistry, is working to help combat the state’s opioid crisis. She’s trying to find a way to collect fingerprints on heroin packaging, which uses a wax-paper like substance called glassine that doesn’t allow for easy fingerprint identification. Collecting prints off heroin packaging could help identify people in drug organizations and help limit the street supply.

“My research focuses on a new and highly promising field of evidence collection in forensics called vacuum metal deposition,” Amaral said. “Using a layer of gold or silver that is only one atom thick, we can find fingerprints on surfaces that are resistant to other visualization techniques. This area of forensic investigation, while filled with competent police officers, somewhat lacks chemistry-knowledge experts who can help guide the rigorous experimentation still required for this process.” 

Amaral said the fellowship is helping her learn how to better strengthen her community relationships. 

“Much like with my teaching, I am looking for a way that my research can make a difference in the community,” she said. “Pennsylvania is in the top five [states] for deaths from opioid overdoses, and Reading is no exception. My work with the Berks County District Attorney’s Forensics Services Unit led me to discover the dearth of experimentally rigorous research in the field of vacuum metal deposition and latent prints. I pursued this fellowship to help fill in some of these holes and I hope to strengthen my relationships with those in the community that are working to fight the opioid epidemic.”

Raja-Khan, associate professor of medicine and obstetrics and gynecology, is looking for ways to help those with diabetes control their glucose using mindfulness. Her project, "Decreasing Stress in Type 2 Diabetes," will determine the effects of two different stress-reduction interventions on glucose control and other key health outcomes in adults with type 2 diabetes.

“Mindfulness is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist who started the University of Massachusetts Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic, as paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally,” Raja-Khan said. 

She said that the fellowship is helping her gain new skills and experience in engaging communities as research partners.

“I want to implement my work in real-world settings more effectively," she said. “I hope to advance my research program by acquiring new skills and experience in community-engaged research, including a greater understanding and appreciation of the perspectives of patients and other stakeholders and an increased ability to effectively communicate my research ideas to them.”

Raja-Khan said the fellowship has been valuable in the success of her study, leading to a National Institutes of Health grant. Raja-Khan, a board-certified endocrinologist, joined Penn State as an endocrinology fellow in 2004 and joined as faculty in 2007. Subsequently, during 2008 and 2009, she completed the NIH-funded institutional K12 Penn State Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health program.

“Nazia is one of those rare physicians who sees an unmet need in her patients that's not directly related to her clinical training, in this case, the stress in people's lives that makes their diabetes hard to control, and learns what is needed to use her research skills to find ways to improve it," said Dr. Chris Sciamanna, professor of medicine and Raja-Khan’s mentor. 

“We are excited for the opportunity to extend the fellowship program to two faculty this year, and that our Commonwealth campuses are once again represented,” Dr. Jennifer Kraschnewski, co-director of the Community-Engaged Research Core, said. “These projects propose partnering with communities in different ways. The core’s mission is to raise the voices of those most impacted by research and we look forward to working with our new fellows to develop these important skills.”

Added Martha Wadsworth, professor of psychology and co-director of the core, “We hope to, once again, see strong applicants from across Penn State. The fellowship is an excellent opportunity to engage with communities and learn how to involve these community members in the research process in a meaningful way. ”

The Community-Engaged Research Core is one of seven in Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute. It provides consultations, training and can help Penn State faculty receive valuable community input through its Community Engagement Studios. 

Penn State faculty interested in applying to the program can learn more here.