New Community Health Cluster selected from seven proposals

Wednesday, July 3, 2013
In keeping with an institutional commitment to address complex issues with broad-based, interdisciplinary approaches, Lehigh University is continuing to fund small groups of faculty “clustered” around an intellectual theme, interest or problem. 
In mid-June, Provost Pat Farrell announced the selection of the Community Health cluster from the seven proposals submitted in February. The inaugural selected clusters—Smart Grid Electricity Systems and Africana Studies—were announced in April 2011. Later that year, the cluster initiative gained further momentum through the provision of seed funding for new cluster development proposals.
In all, 10 seed grants were awarded during the 2011-12 academic year for the following initiatives: Global Islamic Studies, Integrated Healthcare, Integrative Cognitive Neuroscience, Sustainable Development, Addressing Health Promotion through Prevention Science, Robotics, Asian Diaspora, Physics and Chemistry of Biological Systems, Community Health, and Digital Storytelling.
Donald Hall, the Herbert J. and Ann L. Siegel Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, will serve as lead dean for the Community Health cluster, which will fund up to three new faculty positions. Searches for the first two are expected to begin this fall, with the third position filled the following academic year.
An interdisciplinary leadership core
The Community Health cluster will be headed up by a core group of five faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education. They are: Chris Burke, assistant professor in the department of psychology; Judith Lasker, professor in the department of sociology and anthropology; George White, professor in the College of Education’s educational leadership program and director of the Center for Developing Urban Educational Leaders; Breena Holland, associate professor of political science and the Environmental Initiative; and Kelly Austin, assistant professor of sociology.
Burke says this core group will work with Beth Dolan, associate professor of English and director of the Health, Medicine and Society program, and Dena Davis, professor of religion studies and Presidential Endowed Chair in Health, to achieve both the research and teaching goals of the cluster.
According to Burke, the Community Health Cluster will be strategically oriented around the community-based participatory research methodology that has been effective in analyzing and addressing determinants of health and health disparities.
“There is a growing recognition in the public health arena that a key to promoting and sustaining the health of populations is to understand the complex interplay between community members, their environments, and the healthcare system at the local level,” Burke said.  “Community-based participatory research is unique in that community members work side by side with researchers to identify and address the most pressing issues in the local community.”
In working closely with members of the community and with the institutions that serve them, Burke said that more trusting relationships can create a “climate of goodwill” that would encourage personal investment among local citizens and more self-sustaining interventions.
“There is also a significant benefit to researchers with this methodology. For instance, the active involvement of the community can open up access to streams of data that might otherwise be unavailable,” he said, citing Holland’s asthma research as a striking example. 
“Breena’s work is shedding light on the outdoor environmental factors that may contribute to high asthma rates among local schoolchildren, but you also need to look at the home  environments for the complete picture. Community members may be reluctant to open their doors to researchers, but if they can be trained to collect the data themselves in outdoor settings first, then this information becomes within reach.
“That’s the type of potential we see here,” he continued. “We have a well-defined, quite diverse community with significant needs. And we have the researchers here at Lehigh to help address them. What we lacked were a few core pieces to allow us to be more successful across the board.”
An increased interest from students
The selection of the Community Health Cluster comes at a time when undergraduate students are expressing an increasing interest in the university’s Health, Medicine and Society program and public health coursework, Burke said. The number of students minoring in HMS has grown from 36 to 159 since its inception in 2008, according to Dolan. The faculty hired as part of this cluster will enable students to pursue interests in epidemiology and community health with the potential for rich experiential learning opportunities.
“We’re tremendously excited to be selected for this funding,” Burke said. “It represents a very strong institutional commitment and it carries the potential to transform health in the community, as well as our relationship with the community.”
Dan Lopresti, professor and chair of computer science and engineering and co-chair of the Cluster Committee, said the committee considered the Community Health proposal an extremely strong one.
“In addition to the cluster theme, which is, of course, extremely important at a time when health and healthcare are serious concerns for society, we were particularly impressed by the strength of the cross-college collaboration and the potential for Lehigh to generate significant attention through the strategic hiring of three new faculty members to fill out the core faculty already present,” said Lopresti, who serves as co-chair with Anne Anderson, the Joseph K. Perella and Amy M. Perella Chair in finance.
Adds Farrell: “As we’ve seen with both Africana Studies and Smart Grid Electricity Systems, the development of these academic clusters at Lehigh broadly positions Lehigh for the future, and builds on the Lehigh culture of interdisciplinary work. This small group of new faculty focused on community health will augment current Lehigh faculty and provide the ability to move into exciting new areas of research and scholarship and can greatly benefit our local community in significant and measurable ways.”