InCHIP Grantsmanship Program Supports Development of Successful Junior Faculty Researchers

May 24, 2016

This Spring, InCHIP hosted its second Grantsmanship Training Workshop for Health Behavior Researchers at the University of Connecticut. Unlike the 2014 Workshop which was held over two consecutive days in early June, the 2016 Workshop was offered as six two-hour sessions on Friday afternoons from February 19 to April 1, 2016. Thirty-one junior faculty from a variety of academic departments, schools, and campuses at UCONN attended the Workshop. All of these faculty have been offered the opportunity to participate in InCHIP’s Mentorship Program and apply for a year-long mentorship with a senior-level UCONN researcher who has been highly successful in obtaining external funding.
Junior faculty gathered for the Grantsmanship Training Workshop in the J. Ray Ryan Building at UCONN Storrs.
Junior faculty gathered for the Grantsmanship Training Workshop in the J. Ray Ryan Building at UCONN Storrs.
Small group work was an interactive component included in Dr. Amy Gorin's Workshop session on Specific Aims.
Small group work was an interactive component included in Dr. Amy Gorin’s Workshop session on Specific Aims.

The Grantsmanship Training Workshop for Health Behavior Researchers is designed for early-career investigators with an interest in health behavior research, and it is an interactive Workshop that provides step-by-step training on how to develop a competitive grant proposal. This year’s Workshop was facilitated by eight senior-level health behavior researchers from UCONN (Drs. Kim Gans, Meg Gerrard, Rick Gibbons, Amy Gorin, Jennifer Harris, Blair Johnson, Seth Kalichman, and Lisa Sanetti), the Chief of the Basic Biobehavioral and Psychological Sciences Branch at the National Cancer Institute (Dr. Paige McDonald), and the Coordinator for Special Projects at UCONN Global Affairs (Dr. Dorothea Hast) who spoke to attendees about UCONN’s international connections and the opportunities for global research. Feedback from the Workshop was extremely positive with many attendees reporting that it was “engaging, collaborative, and exciting,” and that the insight and concrete examples provided by experts about grant writing and funding opportunities resulted in them feeling “motivated and much more prepared than two months ago” to write grants.

InCHIP Affiliate Amy Mobley, PhD, RD, an Assistant Professor of Community Nutrition in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at UCONN’s College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources, has benefited from a number of InCHIP services including the 2014 and 2016 Grantsmanship Training Workshops. In Spring 2013, Mobley was awarded an InCHIP Seed Grant for New Investigators to collect pilot data that she needed to apply for external funding for a larger project. In 2014, Mobley attended the 2014 Grantsmanship Training Workshop, was accepted into the 2014 Mentorship Program, matched with InCHIP Principal Investigator (PI) and Professor of Human Development and Family Studies Kim Gans, and was awarded one of InCHIP’s 2014 Summer Stipends to partially support grant writing throughout the summer months.

Amy Mobley, PhD
Amy Mobley, PhD

“There is an art to writing grants,” Mobley said. “You absolutely need guidance and practice. I still feel like I have so much to learn and that’s one of the reasons I came back to the 2016 Workshop. To communicate ideas to someone who may or may not be in your field, that’s a challenge and it’s really difficult.”

Mobley’s research interests are related to a discovery she made nearly ten years ago through her work on health behaviors in preschool-aged children: the majority of the literature on child feeding and physical activity behaviors targets the role of mothers in families with young children, but fathers play a role in children’s risk for obesity and that role is not well understood. Mobley’s pilot funding from the InCHIP Seed Grant allowed her to continue her investigation of this phenomenon throughout the 2013-14 academic year. Through interviews conducted with 150 fathers of preschool children in Connecticut, Mobley learned about fathers’ roles in planning meals, grocery shopping, dealing with picky eaters, and fathers’ unique concern for their child’s physical activity level. “Also,” said Mobley, “the fathers want[ed] a special program with their child. They didn’t want it to be mom and dad.”

Dr. Gans, who specializes in intervention development and has years of experience conducting research in obesity prevention, worked collaboratively with Mobley on refining her research about the role of fathers in children’s nutrition habits. Mobley and Gans then reworked an unfunded USDA grant proposal to apply together for funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The R21 feasibility study entitled “Father-Focused Nutrition and Parenting Program to Help Prevent Childhood Obesity in Preschool Age Children” was awarded in May 2016 for a 24-month project period and involves the development and evaluation of a cognitive-behavioral intervention for Connecticut fathers focused on feeding and parenting. This was Mobley’s first submission to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and she credits InCHIP for encouraging and supporting her throughout this two-year process. “I’m thankful for having these different resources and vehicles to push me to submit the application, because I was just thinking that I would keep delaying the process. I feel that they [resources and vehicles] all had a role in the success of this grant.”

Kelley Newlin-Lew, RN
Kelley Newlin-Lew, DNSc, APRN, CDE

Kelley Newlin-Lew, DNSc, APRN, CDE, Assistant Professor in UCONN’s School of Nursing and an InCHIP Affiliate, participated in both the 2014 Grantsmanship Training Workshop and the 2014 Mentorship Program. She praises InCHIP for providing “truly exceptional” resources and for helping her take a team science approach represented in her R34 planning grant proposal. Newlin-Lew was matched with InCHIP PI and Associate Professor of Psychological Sciences Amy Gorin, PhD, as her mentor in 2014. Newlin-Lew and Gorin both conduct research related to obesity prevention and diabetes management. Newlin-Lew worked with Gorin throughout the 2014-15 academic year to refine her grant writing skills and develop a compelling proposal. They formed a multidisciplinary team that included faculty from Computer Engineering and Pharmacy. As Newlin-Lew indicated, “I really needed someone with a similar research interest and a high level of expertise to mentor me in order to develop a highly competitive application. Amy Gorin was a perfect match for me.”

Newlin-Lew’s R34 grant, which was submitted to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), will develop and test a diabetes self-management and medication intensification intervention for federally-qualified health centers that leverages existing resources and promotes greater chronic disease management. The medication intensification component involves upgrades to the Electronic Medical Record (EMR), and the diabetes self-management component involves providing support services for patients in-between primary care visits.

When asked if she had any advice to offer early-career investigators who are considering whether to participate in future professional development programs at InCHIP, Newlin-Lew said, “While a junior investigator may have a lot of promise, to really excel, you need expert mentoring to advance your work. The resources and mentorship [at InCHIP] are so strong that it would be a disservice to one’s research program not to take advantage of them. I was working on my own in a silo in the School of Nursing. I love my work one-thousand times more now that I’m engaging with Amy and other InCHIP scholars across disciplines.”

InCHIP Affiliate Robert Trestman Stresses Communication and Confidentiality at Stepping Up Summit

May 6, 2016

The National Stepping Up Summit, sponsored by NACo, the American Psychiatric Foundation, and the Council of State Governments Justice Center, held from April 17-19 in Washington, D.C., invited teams from 50 counties across the United States from a pool of over 200 applicants. Experts in mental health services, criminal justice, and administration on the local, state, and federal levels, plus participants in the mental health care system and their families, attended the Summit as part of an overall effort to encourage counties to divert jail inmates with mental illness to settings where inmates’ underlying conditions can be addressed.

The Los Angeles County Jail is the largest mental health care provider in the United States.
The Los Angeles County Jail is the largest mental health care provider in the United States.

Approximately 20% of inmates in jails and 15% of inmates in state prisons have a serious mental illness. This is 10 times more than the approximately 35,000 individuals with serious mental illness remaining in state hospitals nationwide. There are more seriously mentally ill individuals in the Los Angeles County Jail, Chicago’s Cook County Jail, or New York’s Riker’s Island Jail than in any psychiatric hospital in the United States. In fact, in every county in the U.S. that has both a county jail and a county psychiatric facility, the jail has more seriously mentally ill individuals.

Robert Trestman, Ph.D., M.D., InCHIP Affiliate and Executive Director of Correctional Managed Health Care
Robert Trestman, Ph.D., M.D.

Robert Trestman, Ph.D., M.D., Professor of Medicine at the UConn School of Medicine, Executive Director of the Correctional Managed Health Care (CMHC) Division at UConn Health Center, and Interim Director of UConn Health’s Center for Public Health and Health Policy, attended the Summit and weighed in on the diversion process from his expert perspective. The CMHC Division is Connecticut’s largest state medical care provider and assumes the provision of all health services for Connecticut’s Department of Corrections (DOC), with the exception of addiction treatment, by administering medical, mental health, pharmacy, and dental services. Services are provided at 16 DOC facilities statewide, at 29 DOC-contracted halfway houses, and at John Dempsey Hospital at UConn Health.

Commenting on the jail diversion process, Trestman stressed communication, consistency, confidentiality, and quality assurance. “Communication is where everything breaks down,” Trestman said. “We think we’re doing it, but in truth…when you’re talking about everything from the paperwork, what’s written on the minimus, what guidance might have been provided and doesn’t get printed, what about the judicial marshals who are transporting people from the jail to the facility. Is there any kind of formal way that information is being documented and effectively communicated, and then on and on from one shift to another?”

Trestman also stressed the importance of sound confidentiality. “People need to feel comfortable enough to share intimate information with someone they just met while they’re distressed.”

The future of the Stepping Up initiative may include providing technical assistance to counties that demonstrate potential for reducing the number of people with mental illness in their jails and designing and implementing state and local collaborations in selected jurisdictions. The Council of State Governments Justice Center is also considering holding an annual national summit of county teams and a diverse group of stakeholders to advance the comprehensive plans for system change and highlight promising practices to help counties track their progress.

 

Read more about the National Stepping Up Summit via NACo County News.

InCHIP Affiliate Jessica Guite Discusses Chronic Pain in Children with UConn Today

May 5, 2016

InCHIP Affiliate Jessica Guite

Worldwide it is estimated that pain lasting several months or longer affects 20-30% of children and adolescents at some time during their youth. The most commonly reported conditions are headaches and abdominal pain, musculoskeletal pain, and back pain, and additionally, it is not uncommon for these issues to co-occur. Along with the challenges associated with the physical discomfort related to pain, there are psychological and emotional consequences for children and their caregivers.

InCHIP-affiliated researcher Jessica Guite, an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the UConn School of Medicine, member of UConn’s Center for Advancement in Managing Pain (CAMP), and associate of Connecticut Children’s Medical Center (CCMC), focuses on improving treatment outcomes for youth with chronic pain and associated conditions for children and their families. Guite says it can be just as important to work with the family to address psychosocial issues, and also to encourage the child to take part in physical exercise to alleviate the pain.

“It can seem counter-intuitive to parents when we suggest activities like walking or swimming for a child who has musculoskeletal pain, especially when resumption of an activity after a period of inactivity can feel uncomfortable at first,” Guite says. “The temptation to let a child stay home from school or an activity to ‘rest up’ when they complain of headaches or stomach aches is understandable. It’s just that some of these coping behaviors aren’t really helpful.” In some cases, a caregiver’s well-intentioned concern can make a young patient react more intensely to a painful condition.

The kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) practiced by Guite places a strong emphasis on helping youth and their caregivers to think differently about pain. Recommended strategies frequently include encouraging a child to do specific exercises, get a better night’s sleep, attend school more regularly, or participate in particular extracurricular activities. Although it can be a challenge to convince parents that changes in behavior, which take time out of an already busy family schedule, may be as valuable to a treatment regimen as taking medication or having a medical procedure, Guite feels strongly that over time, “we’ll find the answers to dealing with chronic pain.”

 

Access the full-feature article in UConn Today.

InCHIP PI Hart Blanton Featured on CNBC

April 19, 2016

InCHIP Principal Investigator and Professor of Psychological Sciences Hart Blanton has been researching the connections between video games and health messages. Although the relationship between online gaming and health promotion may not seem intuitive, new research shows that video games can work for health messages (e.g., Public Service Announcements) as gamers who feel comfortable in such virtual, immersive worlds are subsequently more relaxed and open to health suggestions. “There’s a lot of literature on what’s a healthy environment,” says Blanton. “I think we need to start thinking about what is a healthy virtual environment.”

Blanton - Screenshot
Screenshot of a video game with an anti-DUI PSA
Credit: Christopher Burrows

To illustrate, Blanton and colleagues embed PSAs, such as anti-DUI posters, within naturally-occurring settings of virtual environments, such as a room in the Department of Motor Vehicles. This context keeps health messages relevant, transparent and authentic – qualities that young gamers prefer. The studies by Blanton and Christopher Burrows, a graduate student and webmaster in the Department of Psychological Sciences, revealed that deeply-immersed gamers received health messages more strongly than their less-engaged peers. Blanton attributes this finding to the enticing and participatory nature of video games. “When people get wrapped up and involved in these games, they’re cooperating with that environment. They want for that experience to be real, and so they’re too wrapped up in that experience to also engage in all those thoughts that would cause them to dismiss a message,” Blanton explained.

Despite the promise of this emerging scientific field, researchers also acknowledge the reputation of gaming for promoting violence. In response, adds Blanton, “There’s no preventing these games from being important and a large part of the lives of many young Americans. Given that, we might start thinking about ways in which they [gamers] might interact with worlds that reinforce other messages.”

The full article on CNBC, Scientists are creating video games with health PSAs, can be found here.

InCHIP PI Linda Pescatello Quoted in Runner’s World

April 14, 2016

InCHIP PI and Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Linda Pescatello
InCHIP PI and Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Linda Pescatello

As the number of companies offering DNA testing to everyday athletes increases (e.g., Athletigen, DNAFit, or FitnessGenes), as does skepticism in the scientific community concerning the validity of the results. Most DNA testing companies promise to assess genes related to muscle development, recovery time, and injury risk, but genetics researchers say that the claims from such testing outpace the available evidence. Linda Pescatello, Ph.D., who has spent years trying to decipher the DNA code underlying sports performance in her laboratory, says that while DNA does influence such outcomes as body-fat percentages, the code underlying sports performance has proved far harder to crack. Pescatello elaborates to say that in some cases, genes shown in one study to influence athletic traits do not hold up to further scientific scrutiny. In other cases, the effects of the mutations that scientists do understand pale in comparison to those that they don’t. Pescatello predicts that it will be decades before scientists truly understand genetics well enough to derive useful, specific, and DNA-informed guidance on athletic training.

Click here for the full article from Runner’s World.

BioCHIP Scientists Discuss New Center’s Potential

March 31, 2016

BioCHIP is a new center within the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP) that is bringing InCHIP behavioral scientists together with a team of UConn scientists – from pharmacy, chemistry, and electrical and computer engineering – that has devoted almost two decades to developing a fully implantable glucose monitor for diabetics.

BioCHIP scientists will work together to make the novel device as user-friendly and beneficial as possible for patients with obesity and/ or diabetes and their medical providers alike, so it ultimately produces optimal long-term health benefits.

Here, in this video, the scientists at the center of the new collaboration discuss its benefits in their own words:

 

Online Weight Loss Game Appeals to Elusive Young Adults

By Beth Krane

An online weight loss game designed with input from UConn Associate Professor of Allied Health Sciences Tricia Leahey is reaching a critical, but extremely elusive, target audience: young adults ages 18 to 35.

Despite being at high risk for obesity, young adults represent only seven percent of those enrolled in traditional weight loss programs and the few who do enroll have poorer engagement and weight loss than older adults, said Leahey, an Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP) Principal Investigator. As a result, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently issued a statement highlighting the urgent need for appealing and effective weight loss programs for this age group.

One promising answer to NIH’s call is the web site, DietBet.com, for which Leahey serves as Chief Scientific Officer. DietBet.com uses gaming principles, such as challenges, nominal monetary prizes and social interaction, to motivate participants to lose weight. In contrast to traditional weight loss programs, almost half of DietBet.com’s more than 150,000 users are young adults. More than half of those who participated in Leahey’s recent study of the online game’s effectiveness were young adults and almost 40 percent of them reached their 10 percent weight loss goal.

Leahey will present the study’s findings this Thursday, March 31st at the Society of Behavioral Medicine’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

“Young adults want online programs with engaging features,” said Leahey, whose weight loss interventions borrow from behavioral economics theory. “We’re playing off the popularity of sports web sites where people can draft their own fantasy teams and pool money for pay-outs.”

DietBet.com offers two categories of weight loss games. Those who join as “KickStarters” play for one month with a goal of losing four percent of their body weight. The “Transformers,” whom Leahey studied, play for six months with a goal of losing 10 percent of their body weight. Leahey said those in the first group tend to play with a short-term goal in mind, such as getting ready for beach season or a special event. Those in the second, longer session tend to have more to lose – and also more to gain in terms of long-term health benefits such as preventing diabetes and heart disease.

Each DietBet.com group has two or more players who pay $25 per month (for the Transformers) or $35 for the one month (for the KickStarters). Players’ money is pooled together at the outset and used for monthly pay-outs for those participants who meet pre-specified weight loss goals (Month One: three percent body weight, Month Two: six percent body weight, etc.).

During the game, players interact on the platform, uploading updates about their progress, posting pictures, “cheering,” posting/liking comments, and viewing each other’s weight loss via the leaderboard. Photo- and video-based weigh-in procedures are used to verify weights.

“We’re trying to make weight loss more fun, more social, more appealing,” Leahey said.

From the end of 2013 to early 2015, a total of 7,950 Transformers (those in the six-month game) participated in Leahey’s study. In contrast to those enrolled in traditional behavioral weight loss programs, 56 percent of the participants in the DietBet.com study were young adults. They completed an average of 36.9 posts (either weigh-ins or social interactions) and lost an average of 6.3% of their body weight. Moreover, 37% of the young adults in the study met their goal of losing 10 percent of their body weight.

Another promising finding from the study is that the older adults who participated in the game boasted similar successes: they averaged 35.3 posts and also lost an average of 6.3 percent of their body weight.

“The web site offers a much more current way to lose weight and appeals to young and old users alike,” Leahey said. “There really is nothing else like it on the market.”

Leahey’s study, which received a citation award from the Society of Behavioral Medicine, did not receive any funding from DietBet.com or its parent company, WayBetter Inc.

InCHIP Director Recognized by New England Board of Higher Education

March 15, 2016

InCHIP Director Jeffrey Fisher received the Connecticut State Merit Award from the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) at its “Honoring Excellence 2016” ceremony in Boston on March 4th. The following is an excerpt from an article announcing the award recipients in the NEBHE’s Journal of Higher Education in advance of the event. (The article was published before CHIP became InCHIP).

InCHIP Director Jeffrey Fisher
InCHIP Director Jeffrey Fisher

“Jeffrey Fisher, director of the Center for Health, Intervention, and Prevention (CHIP) at the University of Connecticut, will receive the Connecticut State Merit Award.

Fisher is founding director of CHIP, a multidisciplinary center for health behavior change research, which has received more than $120 million in external funding for research on health behavior since its founding in 2002.

CHIP began in the late 1980s as the AIDS Risk Reduction Project in response to the rise of HIV as a major threat to life and health. Over time, CHIP has become a multidisciplinary center for the study of health promotion and health behavior change across a number of domains.

InCHIP Director Jeffrey Fisher at the NEBHE awards ceremony with (from left): NEBHE Chair Michael Wool, UConn Vice Provost Sally Reis, Connecticut State Representative Roberta B. Willis and NEBHE President & CEO Michael K. Thomas.
InCHIP Director Jeffrey Fisher (center) at the NEBHE awards ceremony with (from left): NEBHE Chair Michael Wool, UConn Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Sally Reis, Connecticut State Representative Roberta B. Willis and NEBHE President & CEO Michael K. Thomas.

Fisher has an extensive background in health behavior change research, intervention design, implementation and evaluation, and has published extensively in these fields.

He has received about $25 million in external funding as a Principal Investigator for this research. Fisher is the co-author of the Information-Motivation-Behavioral Skills model of health behavior change, which has been widely adopted internationally in the context of conceptual and intervention work on health behavior change. He has designed, implemented, and evaluated effective health behavior change interventions in multiple populations, and in multiple health domains, with an emphasis on HIV prevention interventions in populations at risk for HIV.

In recent years, CHIP researchers have launched major initiatives in HIV prevention, medical adherence, autism, diabetes management, cancer prevention, obesity, pharmacology, substance abuse and treatment, health information technology, health communication, dissemination and implementation science, health disparities, exercise science, international health, and complementary and alternative medicine.”

InCHIP Director’s Visit to University in Oman Highlighted

InCHIP Director Jeffrey Fisher traveled to Oman earlier this semester to meet with administrators at Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) to discuss potential health behavior change research collaborations between InCHIP and SQU. The first proposed joint project would be to design a tailored diabetes prevention intervention. His visit was the subject of a feature article on SQU’s web site and an interview with him in the SQU newsletter Horizon.

 

 

InCHIP Director Jeffrey Fisher meets with H.H. Sayyidah Dr. Mona bint Fahad Al Said, SQU Assistant Vice Chancellor for International Cooperation, Esra Alkhasawneh, Dean of the College of Nursing, and Dr. Hamed Al Sinawi, Senior Consultant, Department of Behavioural Medicine, SQU Hospital.
InCHIP Director Jeffrey Fisher meets with H.H. Sayyidah Dr. Mona bint Fahad Al Said, SQU Assistant Vice Chancellor for International Cooperation, Esra Alkhasawneh, Dean of the College of Nursing, and Dr. Hamed Al Sinawi, Senior Consultant, Department of Behavioural Medicine, SQU Hospital.

InCHIP PI Tricia Leahey Penned Article for U.S. News and World Report

March 10, 2016

InCHIP PI and Associate Professor of Allied Health Sciences Tricia Leahey
InCHIP PI and Associate Professor of Allied Health Sciences Tricia Leahey

InCHIP Principal Investigator and Associate Professor of Allied Health Sciences Tricia Leahey was invited to write an article for U.S. News and World Report’s health blog, Eat + Run, which features expert nutrition and fitness advice daily. In the article published today, Leahey, whose weight loss and maintenance interventions apply principles from behavioral economics, such as using financial incentives and the novelty factor, discussed the best motivators for successful and sustained weight loss.