By Guest Blogger: Cynthia Berg, Dean, College of Social & Behavioral Sciences
The central idea of the Families and Health Research cluster is that the family system can be used as a vehicle to improve the health and health care of individuals across the full life-span (from infancy into late adulthood). An interdisciplinary group of scholars began to see that this idea was right for the University of Utah as it built on the strengths in multiple colleges (Social and Behavioral Science, Humanities, Health, Medicine) and the Huntsman Cancer Institute. In addition, it was an ideal fit with the local context in Utah, where families are large and multigenerational and valued as important resources for health and well-being.
The investigators in this group were successful in doing NIH funded research on family issues from understanding genetic and environmental risk factors for chronic disease within the Utah Population Data Base to state of the art observational methods for understanding family processes in the development of disease and in managing chronic illnesses. But there was a need for greater expertise in complex methodologies to capture the intricacies of family members, to develop interventions to use the full potential of the family, to disseminate and implement such interventions, and to more fully capture the cultural and demographic diversity of Utah families.
After the proposal was awarded (May 30th), this group quickly assembled in the summer months to prioritize hires, finalize job advertisements, and secure departmental partners. The group kicked off the fall semester with a brown bag attended by nearly 100 faculty members, postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students where the benefit of a multi-systems approach to the study of families and health was introduced.
This energy was carried forward in October, where the group held a kick-off conference with invited speaker Dr. Rena Repetti, a Clinical Health Psychologist from UCLA. She demonstrated how an intense look at the everyday life of families can yield insights as to how families facilitate health. The event was followed by a research mixer where faculty and graduate students rapidly presented their work on aging, family processes, and coping with chronic illness. The mixer event was an important catalyst for scholars to chart out common interests and brainstorm about research ideas for upcoming proposals to NIH. Further, a graduate student interest group has formed to share ideas and a BLOCK-U proposal has been approved for undergraduates in the fall of 2015.
In December our first candidates come in for interviews and we are excited for the possibilities of these faculty hires. The energy, excitement, and motivation of this group confirms that this is a cluster that will be transformative. Members of this group understand at both a professional and personal level the power of the family in maintaining positive health and adapting to chronic illness (see http://www.utah.edu/faculty/c-fahr/).