Month: June 2016

InCHIP PI Linda Pescatello Named to National Advisory Committee for Physical Activity

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

InCHIP Principal Investigator Linda Pescatello has been named to the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee, organized by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Pescatello, a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Kinesiology, is one of 17 nationally recognized experts in health and physical activity appointed to the committee, which will prepare recommendations for the second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. In a blog post announcing the committee members, Acting Assistant Secreatry for Health Karen DeSalvo wrote, “These experts will play a critical role in a comprehensive process, culminating with the publication of the second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans…Ultimately, this second edition of the Guidelines will give health professionals, the public, and policymakers science-based information on how Americans of all ages can use physical activity to reduce the risk of chronic disease and improve health outcomes throughout the country.” More information about the committee and how to follow its work can be found in the press release here.

Letter from InCHIP Director

InCHIP Director Jeffrey Fisher
InCHIP Director Jeffrey Fisher

Dear InCHIP Affiliates:

We do research because we love to do it. It simply makes us happy to know we are making important contributions to the public health. This past academic year was our highest year ever in terms of total research spending from InCHIP external grants (almost $11 million). We did more path-breaking research than ever before in many critical health domains (including some new ones). We also demonstrated our continuing success at winning external grants in the current fiscal climate, which is gradually improving, and once again brought vital financial resources to the University, allowing UConn to keep investing in its areas of greatest strength and attracting top students and prominent researchers.

This was also the first year in which InCHIP began to link UConn Centers and Institutes which do health-related research together to do joint scientific work on health and health behavior. Recently, we hosted a meeting of sixteen such Centers at InCHIP, and we discussed ways to work to our mutual benefit in the future. To that end, we will have a one-day planning retreat next fall with sixteen such Centers and Institutes and their directors represented, and we hope soon to begin submitting team science grants which link UConn Centers and Institutes which do health-related work with one another in highly competitive grant applications.

In efforts we have undertaken jointly with the Vice President of Global Affairs, we have made exciting progress on international collaborations. InCHIP Affiliate Tania Huedo-Medina, an assistant professor of biostatistics, and I are in the process of creating memoranda of agreement with several organizations which do health-related work in Cuba, as described in an article in this newsletter, and are hoping to have joint InCHIP-Cuba research projects and external funding in the future. InCHIP will also have a new diabetes prevention project beginning soon in Amman and in other parts of Jordan, headed by InCHIP Affiliate Kelley Newlin Lew, an assistant professor of nursing. The project resulted from a trip she and I took there last January. If you are interested in conducting international research, the UConn Office of Global Affairs headed by Dan Weiner is highly effective at facilitating and providing funding for initial travel.

During the summer we will begin creating a new core structure for InCHIP which will begin with an Administrative core (headed by the three InCHIP directors and our new Executive Assistant Steven Jagielo), a Biostatistics and Methodology Core (headed by Dr. Huedo-Medina), as described in another article in this newsletter, an Intervention Core (headed jointly by me and InCHIP PI Kim Gans, a professor of human development and family studies), and a Community Core (headed by InCHIP Associate Director Deborah Cornman). While the administrative core has existed since InCHIP’s inception, the other cores will emerge this fall (some more quickly than others), and will offer services to InCHIP affiliates which will help them succeed in their grant applications and in their grant-funded work. Given the level of investment we are able to make immediately in the Biostatistics and Methodology core, there will be an immediate improvement this fall in the variety and depth of statistical and methodological services we will be able to offer our affiliates. A benefit of the new core structure is that it can be adapted easily for inclusion in large team science Center grants, which will make them easier for us to prepare in the future.

This past year we continued our successful grantsmanship workshop, organized by Deborah Cornman, and next year we will begin offering a team science training workshop, as well as individual brief workshops in particular areas of grantsmanship. We will also be continuing our successful mentorship program, in which graduates of our grantsmanship workshop are paired with an InCHIP PI for a year of mentorship, after which they jointly submit an external grant.

You all know that budgets for the coming academic year are tight, and ours is no exception. We have been able to protect funding for all of the services that InCHIP provides and for the beginning of the new core structure, but the dollars which we can offer in seed grants will be significantly smaller than in the immediate past. Even though our budget is less than we would have hoped, we expect to be part of some very exciting developments in the next academic year. Stay tuned, and have a wonderful summer.

Best Regards,

Jeff Fisher
Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Psychological Sciences
Director, Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy

InCHIP Investigators Prepare Students for Careers in Research

InCHIP investigators are known for their vital and innovative research, but they also work to train the next generation of scientists and clinicians. InCHIP Affiliates Amanda Zaleski and Gregory Panza are part of this next generation.

InCHIP Graduate Student Affiliate Amanda Zaleski
InCHIP Graduate Student Affiliate Amanda Zaleski

Amanda and Greg are both alumni of the UConn Kinesiology Master’s program, where they studied under InCHIP PI Linda Pescatello, and have worked with InCHIP PIs and affiliates for years. The experience they gained working with InCHIP researchers has helped them launch their own research careers and has led them to Hartford Hospital, where they work as exercise physiologists. There, they conduct research on a wide range of projects dedicated to understanding the effects of exercise on human health and they are currently working under InCHIP affiliates Dr. Beth Taylor and Dr. Paul Thompson. Additionally, they have both returned to UConn to complete their PhDs, where they are working again with Dr. Pescatello and taking the next step in developing their research careers.

InCHIP Graduate Student Affiliate Gregory Panza
InCHIP Graduate Student Affiliate Gregory Panza

Amanda and Greg have both found that the knowledge and experience they gained from working with InCHIP investigators is very important to the work they are doing now at Hartford Hospital. For instance, Amanda says that the opportunities she received from Dr. Pescatello and other researchers gave her insight into how high-quality, original research is conducted. She was able to work on a large research trial entitled: “The Effect of Statins on Skeletal Muscle Function and Performance,” also known as the STOMP trial. This study involved hundreds of patients and sought to investigate the influence of statins on muscle pain.

“I went to the very first investigator meeting in 2008 and quietly observed what went into starting such a big study,” she said.

Initially, she did not think she was contributing that much to the project. But she has come to see how the work she did on the STOMP trial is important for any research trial and she uses the skills she learned working on that trial in her position now.

“Even though my role was small in the beginning, I was proud to have gone to that [Hartford Hospital] interview saying that I assisted with the STOMP study start up and was familiar with the protocol and testing procedures,” she explained. “Being able to be a part of the STOMP study as a Master’s student allowed me to see what a ‘gold standard’ research study should look like. Being able to work with Drs. Pescatello, Taylor, and Thompson [has] developed and shaped my ‘core’ research skill set that I will take with me for the rest of my academic life.”

Amanda has used this skill set in the research she is doing now, working on a wide range of projects, from a trial investigating the effects of exercise on dementia risk, to a study of the influence fitness can have on cardiovascular disease in firefighters.

Greg also found similar benefits working with InCHIP researchers: “At UConn, I learned how to conduct high quality, valid research.”

While he was a Master’s student at UConn, he coordinated the Motivational Interventions for Lifestyle and Exercise (MILE) study. This study, conducted under Dr. Pescatello, was an NIH-funded InCHIP project investigating the effects of physical activity on college drinking habits.

“Under the advisement of Dr. Pescatello, I gained leadership and practical skills as a project coordinator, and increased my knowledge of sciences,” he said.

With these experiences, Greg is now currently leading two projects on Alzheimer’s disease: a meta-analysis on the effect of exercise on the cognitive function of people at risk for Alzheimer’s and a review of studies that investigate the link between genetic markers and Alzheimer’s disease.

Amanda and Greg are both aware of the lasting value of their experiences at InCHIP and recognize the importance of training future researchers.

“I realize what a gift it is to have unlimited access to established leaders in the field, and to be able to go to them with questions or advice…I try to take advantage of every single extra opportunity that is given to me as a student, such as InCHIP lectures, presenting at conferences, and grant workshops. These are the types of things that I now know I will miss,” Amanda said.

In fact, in his position at Hartford Hospital, Greg is already training future researchers, preparing current undergraduate students for a career in the health field, just as professors at UConn helped him.

“One of my favorite aspects of my position is mentoring undergraduate student interns seeking to gain experiences in clinical research,” he said. “This allows me to work with future professionals and teach them the skills I have obtained and share the experiences I have had thus far in the field.”

Together, Amanda and Greg represent the impact InCHIP researchers can have in training students to conduct high-quality, important research, so that those students can then become pioneering researchers in their own right.

New InCHIP BioStatistics Core Will Benefit Researchers and Statisticians Alike

By Beth Krane

The Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP) is launching a new Biostatistics Core to enhance InCHIP’s already notable research productivity and quality.

The InCHIP Biostatistics Core will bring together a team of UConn statisticians skilled in various methods and techniques and match them with InCHIP researchers in need of their specific expertise. The new consulting service will replace the limited statistical support services that InCHIP has provided up until now – one statistician with some walk-in office hours on site each week – and it will benefit InCHIP researchers and the participating statisticians alike, said InCHIP Affiliate Tania Huedo-Medina, who will serve as the core’s director.

“There is a clear need for this new core. InCHIP has grown substantially. In addition to all of our PIs and affiliates, we now have whole centers coming under our umbrella. There is no way just one person can provide sufficient statistical services,” said Huedo-Medina, an assistant professor with joint appointments in Allied Health Sciences and Statistics.

Huedo-Medina, whose own expertise includes meta-analysis, mixed-effects models, mediation, and moderation, worked as a post-doctoral student on InCHIP Principal Investigator (PI) Blair T. Johnson’s Synthesis of HIV and AIDS Research Project (SHARP) and as a Research Associate with other InCHIP PIs for a total of 5 years before joining UConn’s faculty in 2011, first as a Research Assistant Professor and then as an Assistant Professor in 2012 in Allied Health Sciences.

“InCHIP researchers keep asking [Director] Jeff [Fisher] who can help them with their data analysis,” said Huedo-Medina, who already is assisting about two dozen InCHIP researchers on her own. “Considering the number of researchers we have with large data sets and complex research designs, we are not publishing nearly as many papers as we could be, we are not being nearly as efficient as we could be.”

InCHIP is modeling its new Biostatistics Core after several successful biostatistical consulting services at prestigious research institutions, including those at Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, Brown and Yale Universities, and University of California-Irvine.

Services the Biostatistics Core will provide include:

  • Project design
  • Statistical analysis for grant proposal preparation
  • Power analysis
  • Preparation of status reports for grants
  • Data analysis and modeling
  • Presentation of results for journal publications
  • Ongoing data management

Huedo-Medina will finalize the guidelines for the Biostatistics Core with Fisher and InCHIP’s Associate Directors Deborah Cornman and Amy Gorin this summer, so it is up and running by the start of the fall semester. She also will oversee the development of a web application that will allow InCHIP researchers to request statistical support well in advance of their grant or publication deadlines and help pair them with the appropriate statisticians.

Huedo-Medina said InCHIP PIs applying for grant funding will be encouraged to include the statisticians’ percent effort within their grant budget. Affiliates also will be able to access the Biostatistics Core’s services but may have a limited number of hours available to them. Those outside of InCHIP – both within and outside UConn – would pay an hourly consulting fee if the service is not part of a grant or if they are an affiliate and have run out of the free hourly service.

“There are clear benefits to our PIs… The core will help them develop statistically sound experiments from the beginning, help them efficiently manage their data, and help them with analysis so they can prepare papers for publication,” Huedo-Medina said. “There also are clear benefits to the participating statisticians. Working with InCHIP PIs and affiliates will give them a chance to apply their knowledge and skills to real-world health problems.”

Participating statisticians also will have more opportunities to be co-investigators on grants and that could mean a chance for summer salaries and also funding for graduate students, she said. The Biostatistics Core may also bring speakers and/ or professional development courses to campus for the statisticians, to help them stay at the forefront of their field.

“I know the needs from a PI and a statistician perspective, and I see how we can work together more efficiently” Huedo-Medina said.


UConn Secures Verbal Agreements with Seven Cuban Institutions for Collaborative Health Research

By Katrina Aberizk

When Dr. Tania Huedo-Medina, Assistant Professor of Biostatistics, Director of the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy’s (InCHIP) Biostatistics Core, and Director of the forthcoming InCHIP center for Ibero-American health, approached the University of Connecticut’s Vice President for Global Affairs Dr. Daniel Weiner and InCHIP Director Dr. Jeffrey Fisher with her idea to launch a health science research initiative in Cuba, she was not sure whether her idea would meet with their approval or support. Enter Dr. Weiner’s long-standing interest and history of work in Cuba, Dr. Fisher’s interest in global health research and InCHIP’s significant expertise in this area, and President Obama’s timely efforts to peel back the United States’ economic embargo on Cuba, and Huedo-Medina has a recipe for success.

Tania Huedo-Medina, PhD, in front of the capitol building in Havana, Cuba
Tania Huedo-Medina, PhD, in front of the capitol building in Havana, Cuba

Huedo-Medina, Weiner and Fisher know that an initiative in Cuba, a nation that has been mostly isolated from the United States since before the Cuban Revolution, requires the utmost patience to plan. Diplomatic and financial challenges related to the economic embargo, and the troubled history of US-Cuba relations, produce a hindrance to seamless academic exchanges with this Latin American country. Weiner’s past cultural work in Cuba and Huedo-Medina’s Spanish heritage, knowledge of Cuban history and culture, and ability to speak the language have positioned the University to be uniquely successful in endeavors in Cuba.

“When other universities have visited Cuba, they soon realize that negotiations are difficult and have to go through many layers in both countries. Some US universities have given up, and other applications have not been prioritized by Cuban organizations when granting memoranda of understanding. We learned through our visits how everything is complicated, requires the development of mutual trust, a strong network of contacts, and the ability to navigate these circumstances,” said Huedo-Medina.

The purpose of the UConn-Cuba initiative is two-fold and has been funded by a generous investment from UConn’s Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) and Global Affairs. Huedo-Medina is leading a search for private funding sources who may also have interest in sponsorship. Federal funding has to be navigated carefully due to impediments caused by the continuous US embargo in Cuba.

The academic component of the UConn-Cuba initiative is being championed by Global Affairs. In three years, VP Weiner envisions productive and mutually-beneficial partnerships between UConn and Cuban institutions embodied by “collaborative research, robust student and faculty mobility programs, and cultural exchange programming as well.”

Hospital Universitario "General Calixto García" in Havana
Hospital Universitario “General Calixto García” in Havana

The research component of the project was jump-started when Huedo-Medina and Fisher first visited Cuba for an exploratory delegation trip in November 2015. During this visit, Huedo-Medina and Fisher met with Dr. Ariel Reyes, Professor of Sociology at the University of Havana, and with others who were able to facilitate introductions for Huedo-Medina and Fisher at a number of other institutions for research and higher education in Cuba. Conversations with these new contacts continued throughout the winter months despite impediments to fluid communication due in part to the poor telecommunications infrastructure in Cuba. Shortly after the holiday season, Huedo-Medina secured an invitation for both herself and Fisher to attend and present at the National Conference of the Cuban Psychological Society. The Conference hosted over 1,500 attendees from more than 50 countries around the world. The content of their presentations generated a further invitation to present a talk entitled Model for Conceptualization and Implementation of Information-Motivation-Behavioral Skills Among Drug Abusers at the Center for Academic Developments on Drug Addiction (Centro para el Desarrollo Académico sobre Drogodependencias, CEDRO). An article about Huedo-Medina’s and Fisher’s presentation appeared recently on the front page of the University of Havana Medical Sciences’ website.

During their visit, Huedo-Medina and Fisher met with contacts at the University of Havana, the University of Havana Medical Sciences, The Central University “Marta Abreu” of Las Villas, the Psychology Association of Cuba, the Center for Academic Developments on Drug Addiction (CEDRO), the Institute of Animal Science (ICA), and the National Center for Agricultural Health (CENSA) to determine parameters for formal agreements with these institutions. Many researchers at these institutions are eager and excited to collaborate with those at UConn and investigate issues related to a broad variety of health domains (e.g., HIV, drug abuse, and diet). Said Fisher, “we look forward to identifying a group of investigators in Cuba and at InCHIP who will complement and work collaboratively with one another over the long term.” Fisher and colleagues hope to pursue private and public funding with investigators from Cuban organizations.

Said Huedo-Medina, “the short-term goal is for researchers in Cuba and at InCHIP to co-author papers of mutual interest that have already been identified to establish a strong record of collaboration. Those papers will contribute to external grant proposals that can be written once funding opportunities are solidified. The next step will be to plan a two-day retreat for Cuban and UConn researchers, which we hope will be held in Cuba in Spring 2017. Many Cuban investigators have a lot of research going on in which InCHIP researchers can be helpful and vice versa. We have access to a lot of literature and other resources that Cubans do not have. Cubans have developed novel public health interventions that could be useful in the US. The Spring 2017 event would be an opportunity for Cuban and American researchers to work with one another, draft project proposals, and allow them to get to know each other better. I also imagine a workshop to help Cuban and American researchers better understand each other’s culture and appreciate each other’s perspectives on historical events leading up to and following the Cuban Revolution. There will also be a day set aside for tourism and fun activities.”

Huedo-Medina takes a ride in a cycle taxi in Havana
Huedo-Medina takes a ride in a cycle taxi in Havana

Huedo-Medina hopes that investigators will eventually be able to collaborate on federally funded research projects to advance the science and practice of health promotion interventions in Cuba, and in so doing, inform possible future implementations of these interventions in the US. Of great interest to Huedo-Medina is how particular domestic, evidence-based intervention outcomes may differ when implemented in Cuba, a country with a significantly different health care system from the US. Unlike the American health care system which operates largely under the discretion of private health insurance companies, the Cuban health care system is public, virtually free-of-charge, and highly structured according to a categorization system based on the specific health risks of patient populations. Said Huedo-Medina, “this is about growth and growing together in an international relationship to be built on trust, reciprocity, and respect.”