Families and Health Transformative Cluster

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.

GroupThe 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.

Dr. Rena RepettiThis 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/).

Creating a Network of Utah Alumni

I loved my first commencement season at the U.  What I experienced was a campus-wide ceremony that was both grand and entertaining, including an articulate, astute Alex Smith as the featured speaker, and an astonishingly sage student speaker whose insights left us all feeling optimistic about what our graduates will achieve.  What I noticed with special pride was the investment of our colleges in creating events that warmly welcomed families, personally recognized graduates, and commended academic achievement.  What I discovered was the depth of talent and accomplishment of our most accomplished alums, those recognized with honorary degrees, an outstanding cadre who have quite literally made the world, particularly Salt Lake and the great state of Utah, better places.

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Atmospheric Sciences’ Valedictorian, Brian Blaylock, speaks at the College of Mines and Earth Sciences Convocation.

As I became acquainted with some of the traditions of the University of Utah through graduation, I reflected on the importance of all of this ceremony.  It is the time when we welcome the newest alumni into the family of Utah graduates, a community of academics, business entrepreneurs, educators, writers and thought leaders, health professionals, artists and architects, scientists and engineers, performers, planners, lawyers and leaders – a community more than 200,000 strong that stands together to support the University, now and over the decades ahead.  Today’s graduates will drive innovation, discovery and economic and societal development in the years to come; and, if we do our jobs well, will remain a central force in the future success of the University of Utah.  It is both rewarding and prudent to form lasting relationships with our new graduates and to create opportunities for young alumni to build networks, with each other and with those who preceded them.  Vibrant universities have robust, dynamic alumni communities who remain connected across decades, and who sustain and amplify the strength of the U over time, supporting us financially and with their ideas and time, all of which are valued.

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Student receives diploma from Dean Frank Brown.

The first step in building an energetic alumni community is ensuring quality in all aspects of the student experience, including the celebration of students’ achievement at commencement.  Special thanks to those of you who took part in this year’s celebrations.  For those of you who were not able to participate this year, I hope that you will join in the pomp and circumstance next commencement season.  Like me, I feel sure that you find it rewarding.