‘A turning point’: UW Population Health Initiative’s pandemic grants changed how the university works

Jake Ellison and Rebecca Gourley

A year ago, seemingly overnight, streets emptied, shops boarded up, grocery shelves were cleared, schools closed and the University of Washington led universities nationwide in moving all instruction online. Nearly all of us disappeared inside, stunned and staring out at a world suddenly paralyzed by something we’d only seen in movies or read about in books: a global pandemic.

Then came the questions: How long will the virus keep us inside and shut down? What will happen to the people who can’t work from home or don’t have a home, and how can we protect them? What communities are getting hit hardest by COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, why and what can we do about it?

The questions went on and on, but where could the answers be found?

For the UW — which in 2016 launched the Population Health Initiative to bring interdisciplinary understanding and solutions to the biggest challenges facing communities — the pandemic was a crystallizing moment.

“This was a turning point for the Population Health Initiative,” said Ali H. Mokdad, the UW’s chief strategy officer for population health and professor of health metrics sciences at the UW Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. “A turning moment, when the university said to our researchers: ‘Give me your best idea and let’s do it.’”

Five months later, the initiative had funded 53 pilot projects out of 207 applications, totaling a collective $1.7 million. The common theme for these projects was to understand and mitigate the health, economic and equity impact of COVID-19 on communities — particularly the communities of color that have been especially hard hit by the pandemic.

Dashboard by Rebecca Gourley/University of Washington

“Faculty are at their best when you give them an opportunity to be innovative and not tell them what to do. If you come to them and say here’s the problem, you come up with the best way to solve it and then we’ll support you to do so — that’s when you get the greatest ideas,” Mokdad said. “And, quite honestly, I was shocked. Because this is a stressful time, I felt we’re not going to be able to get a lot of applications, let alone a lot of great applications.”

Based on feedback from nearly all of the UW teams (see testimonies above), the initiative’s money got them started on projects they either had in mind, had started but needed a boost, or created from scratch and then built a dream team of collaborators around. Through these incentives, the grants changed how the university works.

 

“The grant provided an opportunity for me to reach out to the Somali Health Board to see what needs they identified. Without being able to offer funding, I wouldn’t have reached out. Public health research has a long way to go in supporting — and expecting — researchers to co-create projects with community partners. Our research was driven by the Somali Health Board’s interests, and I think the fact that the PHI award explicitly rewarded community collaboration has allowed UW researchers to practice community engagement and deepened community relationships.” — Keshet Ronen, acting assistant professor, Department of Global Health, as stated in the above interactive graphic.

 

“In general, in any university, you are at the mercy of funders,” Mokdad said. “Funders come to you and say, this is what I want you to work on. But we asked: What could we do here to stimulate innovative ideas that could be done fast? Ideas outside of the box but realistic and helpful to the community.”

Tamsin Lee, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pharmaceutics, and Yvonne Lin, an associate professor in the School of Pharmacy, are among the dozens of researchers who pointed to how the initiative influenced how research works at UW.

“The grant provided an opportunity for us to bring our communities together and support one another as we continue to live during this crisis. We hope this will lead to more community-based participatory research where community leaders are not only stakeholders but also researchers who offer valuable expertise in designing and conducting a study,” they wrote.

Lee and Lin received the grant for their project titled Building Resilient Attitudes with Virtual Engagement (BRAVE). The team constructed a feasibility study to explore the use of online peer support for Black and Asian American adults, ages 17 to 40 years.

2021 pilot research grants

On March 9, the Population Health Initiative announced funding for eight new projects, taking on pressing population health challenges ranging from COVID-19 to climate change to infant and child health.

 

“The initiative provided generous resources without the development overhead that comes with multiyear grants. This helped our team take the leap of faith on addressing a critical challenge to population health, while simultaneously maintaining other commitments,” said Edward Kasner, clinical assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences in the School of Public Health.

“The initiative offers new opportunities for interdisciplinary projects,” Kasner said. “Most importantly, these resources can facilitate community-academic partnerships that expand research impact through practical solutions.”

Kasner’s team received a grant to build scientifically sound occupational safety and health messages for farmworkers through PSAs, radio and social media messages, and infographics.

(For more testimonies related to the initiative’s grants, please see the above interactive graphic.)

“Through these grants, the university is telling its faculty — we asked you to stand behind this initiative and we’re going to support you to do that,” Mokdad said.

 

“I was already collaborating with my community, and the grant allowed me to fulfill a community request to sample for contaminants that are especially toxic and harmful to children. The money also made it possible for some of the community scientists to be funded to participate. I am very thankful the grant emphasized this component of community research, and I especially appreciate the grant was specifically for people of color — funding that goes toward supporting diversity in research speaks volumes.” — Melanie Malone, assistant professor, School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, UW Bothell.

 

When it comes to what the initiative says to communities around the state, country and world, Mokdad said, “This is what we want you to know about us: We are part of this community. We care.”


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