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/).

Transformative Excellence Program

A quick scan of this morning’s Salt Lake Tribune highlights some of the most pressing issues we struggle with as a society – our environment and air quality, conflict across cultures throughout the world and the quest for peace, health in a sedentary society, access to the arts and creative experiences across socioeconomic strata, the effectiveness of public education, clean energy, ethics in political and business leadership.

As a public research university, one of our core missions is the generation of knowledge, through scholarship, that is relevant to the urgent concerns of our time. The challenges we face are complex; meaningful progress in understanding and addressing these challenges will require innovative strategies, strategies that bring together scholars from varied disciplines who, collectively, can shed new light on old problems. In the area of health, for example, we have known for years that physical activity promotes health. What we need to know more about is how to change behavior to promote and sustain the type of physical activity that will enhance health across the lifespan. This work requires the partnership of scholars who understand human behavior with those who study determinants of health outcomes.

In order to strengthen the capacity of our campus to address complex societal problems, we are launching a Transformative Excellence Program (TEP). The TEP enables recruitment of faculty in strategic clusters, clusters that bridge different fields of study, focus on specific areas of societal importance, and build on existing strengths already present at the U. Our hope is that by adding clusters of scholars to our campus in strategic areas, we will significantly expand our capacity to address urgent concerns, strengthen our visibility and impact as one of the nation’s flagship research universities, and extend new knowledge to education and to communities. Additional information on the Transformative Excellence Program, including the request for proposals, can be found at the TEP.