Month: February 2012

CHIP Is Exploring New and Expanded Collaborations

From a New Joint Seed Grant to Speed Networking, CHIP and Partners Generate New Opportunities for Collaboration

With 156 affiliates from almost every school and college at UConn and from outside institutions too, CHIP already has an established track record of forming multidisciplinary collaborations in the area of health behavior change research.

Some of the ways CHIP historically has encouraged its affiliates to create new multidisciplinary teams include holding a well-attended Lecture Series that brings investigators with similar health behavior change interests together to listen to leading experts in their fields and bringing researchers from different disciplines to work together in shared office space at the Ryan Refectory Building.

After 5 Research Schmooze
CHIP and CIRA researchers network at the After 5 Research Schmooze
speed dating-style event held at Agave Restaurant in Hartford on Feb. 15th
Within the past six months, however, CHIP Director Jeffrey Fisher and Associate Director Deborah Cornman have made an even greater push to forge new, and expand existing, CHIP collaborations both within UConn and outside the University.

Several examples of those efforts include working with Yale University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS (CIRA), the University’s Cooperative Extension System (CES), which is administered by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), and UConn’s Center for Continuing Studies (CCS).

“These new and expanded collaborations with highly-regarded, accomplished centers, such as Yale’s CIRA and important collaborators on the Storrs campus, not only will help individual investigators form new multidisciplinary research teams, bring additional dimensions to their scholarly research programs, and pursue new external grant opportunities,” Fisher said. “They will allow CHIP and its partners to create new mechanisms for disseminating the evidence-based interventions developed at our centers to the populations that need them most at the community, state, national and international levels.”

CHIP and CIRA had existing collaborations in place, such as simulcasting lectures between centers, partnering on a grant to mentor researchers from diverse backgrounds in community-based HIV/AIDS research, and producing “AIDS Science Day,” a biannual, statewide HIV research dissemination event featuring the research of CIRA, CHIP and Institute for Community Research investigators.  Since  Fisher and CIRA Director Dr. Paul Cleary discussed expanding their centers’ collaboration last summer,  a new joint seed grant program and a new networking event already have been developed:

  • The CIRA/ CHIP Multi-Institutional Pilot Program will make up to $50,000 in seed grant funding available this spring to an HIV/AIDS research team including at least one  investigator from each research center, with the goal of the collaboration growing into a jointly-submitted, significant external grant ; and
  • The “After 5 Research Schmooze,” a speed dating-style networking event, was held for CIRA and CHIP investigators Wednesday, Feb. 15th to afford them a chance to meet, discuss common research interests, and possibly find a partner(s) for applying for the recently announced joint seed grant competition.

“Researchers throughout the country are increasingly recognizing the importance and value of interdisciplinary collaborative research. As we thought about how to improve the excellence and impact of research supported by CIRA, an obvious strategy was to forge better collaborative relationships with scientists at CHIP,” Cleary said. “The expertise of CHIP scientists complements that of CIRA scientists in many instances. I think this is a clear example of where the whole is more than the sum of the parts.”

CIRA Executive Director Elaine O’Keefe added: “The enhanced collaboration with CHIP is also intended to advance the HIV research agenda here in our own state and communities. While CIRA and CHIP seek to have national and global impact, our centers are also fully dedicated to impacting the epidemic here in Connecticut and aligning the scientific resources of CIRA and CHIP will help us to achieve this mutual goal.”

The new seed grant program, which is a shared investment between the two centers, is open to faculty and research scientists at both centers who are developing joint pilot work at CHIP and CIRA likely to lead to future, significant external funding to ultimately be submitted through one of the centers (with a substantial sub contract to the other center).

The announcement states: “Proposals will require at least two PIs, one from CIRA and one from CHIP, who will make equal contributions to the proposed research and have roughly equal expenditures.  Applicants must demonstrate intent to apply for national research funding within a defined timeline, and describe new research that could not be achieved without the collaboration. Preference is to support new collaborations and thus to fund a new CHIP-CIRA team.”
During this first round of the Multi-Institutional Pilot Program, priority also will be placed on translational/implementation research that focuses on priority populations identified in the National HIV/AIDS Strategy ( or research projects that address the HIV epidemic in international settings.

Letters of intent (LOI) to apply for the Multi-Institutional Pilot Program are due Tuesday, March 6th and final applications for those investigators whose LOI meet the grant criteria are due Thursday, April 19th.

As for the open networking event, which was held at Agave Restaurant in Hartford, 23 individuals from CHIP and CIRA attended, including 19 researchers. Brief bios of all HIV/AIDS researchers from both institutions were shared between the organizations in advance of the event and researchers either requested 15 minutes “dates” with specific researchers from the other center or opted to take part in open networking. One researcher, CHIP Associate Director Deborah Cornman, even attended the event via Skype while she was conducting research in Africa.

On campus, CHIP has made preliminary plans to collaborate with the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the University’s Cooperative Extension System as well as UConn’s Center for Continuing Studies.

Leaders from CHIP and CANR/CES already have met on a few occasions and outlined possible ways for the respective UConn entities to enhance each other’s research and outreach efforts, given that CHIP and CANR/CES’s missions place an emphasis on bringing research-based programs and practices to the communities that need them most.

For example, in identified areas of mutual strength, CHIP researchers may be able to help CANR/ CES educators evaluate the effectiveness of their existing health-related programs and apply for even larger federal grants to expand those that are most effective. In return, CANR/CES, with its vast network of more than 40,000 extension educators spread throughout every county in Connecticut, may be able to help CHIP researchers identify and gain access to additional research sites for their projects. This is especially important as CANR/CES and CHIP work with at-risk populations and it can be particularly hard for researchers to gain the trust of and establish relationships with some at-risk populations.

One such area of mutual strength between CHIP and CANR/ CES that already has been identified is obesity.

CHIP has an obesity research interest group which brings together researchers from a broad range of academic disciplines. The interest group is directed by CHIP Principal Investigator Amy Gorin, an associate professor of psychology. CHIP also is in the process of recruiting and hiring another obesity expert.

Select examples of current CHIP obesity research include working with parents and pediatricians in Hartford to target childhood obesity in African American and Latino children as young as two years of age and translating an effective lifestyle intervention for overweight and obese individuals with Type 2 diabetes into a virtual clinician intervention that can be accessed 24/7.

Likewise, CANR/CES have a wealth of opportunities and a strong desire for collaboration in the area of obesity research, as CANR/ CES work closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and one of the USDA’s primary areas of focus is obesity.

For example, CANR houses the Zwick Center for Food and Resource Policy, directed by Rigoberto Lopez, department head of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Another CANR faculty member – Valerie Duffy, a professor of Allied Health Sciences – serves as a principal investigator of the UConn SNAP-Ed program, the nutrition education arm of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps).

Additionally, CES program coordinators have a wide range of nutrition and physical activity programs underway in various Connecticut counties, many made possible through multiple, five-year USDA Children, Youth and Families (CYFAR) grants. Examples include bringing Wii Fit fitness equipment and programs to schools and hosting regular Family Nights at schools, designed to strengthen family relationships and foster healthier lifestyles.

As a starting point, CHIP and CANR/CES plan to have Fisher or Cornman present to CANR/ CES about CHIP this semester and, in return, to have individuals from CANR/ CES present at CHIP as part of the Center’s fall Lecture Series. Already, Lopez is scheduled to speak as part of the CHIP Lecture Series next fall.

Fisher said there also has been discussion about using the 4-H program, administered by CANR/CES, as an arena to test and disseminate CHIP interventions to address obesity and improve the health of teens.

CHIP and CANR/ CES have discussed the possibility of creating their own joint seed grant program too.

“The College of Agriculture and Natural Resources outreach efforts through the Cooperative Extension system have been representing UConn in Connecticut’s communities for over 100 years. Enhancing citizen knowledge of proper nutrition and healthier lifestyles while utilizing our university-led research has never gone out of style and we look forward to reaching even more families with our partnership with CHIP,” said Bonnie Burr, assistant director of UConn’s Cooperative Extension System.

Finally, CHIP and the Center for Continuing Studies are at the preliminary stages of exploring possible areas for collaboration.

“We are exploring possibilities for us to partner in a manner that would allow us to force multiply dissemination and sustainability of research informed best practices identified by CHIP researchers,” said CCS Interim Director Peter Diplock.

Linda Friedman, program director for CCS’s Academic Partnerships and Special Programs, said ideas under discussion include those that could be implemented very quickly, such as identifying professional audiences interested in the CHIP Lecture Series and offering UConn continuing education credits to them for attending the lectures or viewing them online.

Projects that would take longer to develop include online “train-the-trainer” offerings for various CHIP evidence-based interventions, possibly for domestic and international audiences, and transfer of training and relapse prevention training for many areas of behavior change studied at CHIP.

Fisher said the potential collaboration is particularly attractive to CHIP because of the possibility of creating a network for training practitioners around the world in evidence-based interventions developed at CHIP.

CHIP PI’s Work to Reduce Gender-Based Violence

With an infusion of funding from the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator (OGAC), CHIP Associate Director Deborah Cornman is adding a new dimension to her HIV prevention efforts in Mozambique: she will be developing an intervention to address the gender-based violence that contributes to the spread of HIV there.

OGAC’s Gender-Based Violence Initiative (GBVI) is a multinational project taking place in Mozambique and two other African countries – the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania.

Dr. Deborah Cornman
Dr. Deborah Cornman
As part of her ongoing work with HIV-positive members of the military in Mozambique, Cornman has conducted extensive focus group research with men and women at military hospitals in the country.

During those focus groups, a reoccurring theme emerged: culturally-sanctioned gender roles and related gender-based violence play a significant role in the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections in Mozambique, where 12.5 percent of the population is living with HIV.

“Violence and the threat of violence serve as barriers to women carrying condoms, negotiating safer sex, demanding monogamy from their partners, and disclosing their HIV status,” Cornman said.

However, Mozambique’s first domestic violence law, which passed in 2009, coupled with the multinational collaboration being funded by OGAC, has created a real opportunity for Cornman and other GBVI partners to change existing social norms surrounding gender equality and gender-based violence in the country, and ultimately to help reduce the prevalence of violence against women.

“Preventing gender-based violence is clearly becoming a priority for the government and the military in in Mozambique, because, at the very least, there is an understanding of the public health ramifications of gender-based violence,” Cornman said.

Cornman and Population Services International (PSI), which is based in Washington, D.C. and operates in 67 countries, will be addressing gender roles and gender-based violence specifically within the Mozambican Armed Defense Forces (FADM), while other GBVI partners will address the issue among the civilian population in Mozambique.

“A gender-based violence prevention intervention is especially needed in the military, which is a male-dominated organization where gender inequality tends to be normative and HIV prevalence rates are estimated to be two to three times higher than in Mozambique’s civilian population,” Cornman said.

Cornman is developing an integrated, multi-level, gender-based violence and HIV prevention intervention for male soldiers in Maputo City.

“Combining individual-, group- and structural-level approaches impacts not only individual behavior, but also peer norms and social beliefs,” Cornman said. “Shifting social norms to support sustained behavior change in a critical mass of community members, in turn, can have powerful and sustained effects that can impact neighboring communities.”

Cornman will implement the intervention on the individual level using a “train-the-trainers” approach she has used successfully with previous interventions. She will train soldiers, selected by FADM as popular opinion leaders, to serve as peer educators who will do outreach and deliver gender-based violence and HIV prevention messages and resources within the barracks.

Cornman also will develop a multi-session group workshop for male soldiers in barracks that will cover topics such as gender, communication skills, stress and anger management, and the role alcohol plays both in partner violence and in risky sexual behavior. Groups will include 10 to 15 soldiers and will be facilitated by trained fellow soldiers.

Additionally, Dr. Cornman will be creating a GBV prevention curriculum that will be used with new recruits in two military academies. Once the curriculum is developed, she will train instructors how to teach the curriculum. It is estimated that approximately 1,000 new recruits will receive education in GBV prevention in year one alone.

“If we can start educating recruits when they first enter the military and are motivated to learn, we will have a much greater chance of impacting their attitudes and behavior towards women,” Cornman said.

To affect change at the structural level, Cornman will be assisting PSI with the training of military commanders, whose role it is to provide leadership around gender equality and healthy sexual relationships. Cornman will also be working with the Ministry of Defense on a social marketing campaign in 24 barracks in Maputo City, that will disseminate GBV-related information using the military radio and the military newspaper. They will also be sponsoring a “Gender Equality Day” that will include presentations and educational dramatic enactments to encourage discussions about gender roles, gender-based violence, and healthy sexual relationships.

“It is not an easy task, but we are trying to redefine masculinity, and what it means to be a strong man, as taking care of his family rather than using violence against them. We want soldiers to understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate use of physical force. Using physical force to defend one’s country is acceptable. Using it to control one’s wife or girlfriend is not,” Cornman said.

Cornman also plans to integrate the new gender-based violence intervention she will develop into her ongoing HIV prevention-with-positives work at three military hospitals in Mozambique, where currently about 30 peer educators, already trained by her, are influencing the sexual risk behaviors of hundreds of HIV-positive individuals.

Cornman anticipates the peer educators will impact hundreds of soldiers with individual and group work while the social marketing campaign will reach thousands of soldiers. Some soldiers will be exposed to just one aspect of the intervention, while others will be exposed to multiple levels of it, she said.

Provided the three-year demonstration project proves effective, Cornman ultimately plans to package the intervention for distribution and train a cohort of soldiers to be “master trainers” who will train soldiers throughout FADM for widespread implementation.

CHIP Research Featured on 60 Minutes

The CBS television news documentary 60 Minutes featured research conducted by CHIP investigators Blair Johnson and Tania Huedo-Medina regarding the efficacy of antidepressants on Sunday, February 19, 2012. Johnson and Huedo-Medina conducted the research, published several years ago, in collaboration with a third UConn Psychology Department faculty member, Irving Kirsch, who appeared on the segment.

Link to the Kirsch et al. article:

Link to the 60 Minutes segment: