Fellowship equips researchers with skills to engage community in research

Gina Brelsford’s daughter was born at 32 weeks in 2007 and was hospitalized in the neonatal intensive care (NICU) unit for five weeks. That experience inspired the associate professor of psychology at Penn State Harrisburgto study the role of religion and spirituality in coping by parents of children in the NICU. It is through her experience as a Community-Engaged Research Core Faculty Fellow that she hopes to take that research out into the community to better understand the psychology of religion and spirituality in a variety of environments.

The Community-Engaged Research Core Faculty Fellowship Program is a year-long opportunity that matches a researcher with a mentor. Community-engaged research serves the needs and involves those who have a stake in improving health including communities and their members, patients, clinicians, researchers, purchasers, payers, industry, hospitals and health systems, training institutions, and policy makers. The fellowship is a program of Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

“Engaging effectively with local communities to conduct research that is respectful of and responsive to the needs of community members is critical to advance the goals of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute and its Community-Engaged Research Core,” said Martha E. Wadsworth, associate professor of psychology, co-lead of the core and Brelsford’s mentor during the fellowship. “Building the relationships and coalitions needed to support this research adds multiple layers of complexity to such research. Learning from an experienced mentor about how to enter communities, understand their needs, and design responsive studies can help less experienced investigators avoid common pitfalls and be more successful in launching their own community-engaged studies.”

Brelsford is near the end of her fellowship. Applications are open until March 28 for the 2018-2019 program.

“The fellowship interested me because I plan to move my research out into the community, which means connecting with hospitals outside of Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, to assist families who experienced NICUs and may need assistance with coping after discharge from the hospital,” Brelsford said. “I am also interested in learning more about coping interventions and biomarkers related to stressors. My work with Dr. Wadsworth was integral to moving forward into community engaged research.”

Brelsford’s research focuses on the psychology of religion and spirituality.

“As a clinical psychologist and a researcher in the psychology of religion and spirituality field, I am very interested in how individuals’ use of religion and spirituality are helpful and harmful in their lives,” Brelsford said. “Due to my training as a child and family clinical psychologist, which is centered on the importance of the family system, I am keen to understand how families experience religious or spiritual value systems and how these value systems inform coping with stressors.”

The experience was rewarding to Brelsford, by allowing her to explore different spheres of research, learn about clinical translational science and to attend both the Clinical and Translational Science Institute board meeting and the Appalachian Translational Research Network meeting.

“I think Gina has benefited from various networking experiences facilitated by both my research enterprise as well as the greater Clinical and Translational Science Institute,” Wadworth said. “She has made important connections in the Harrisburg community necessary for implementing the next phase of her work.” 

Brelsford said the fellowship has equipped her with the understanding of how to conduct community-related research and with the contacts within Penn State and out in the community to do so.

“My future goals involve actively translating what we know about how coping can be helpful and harmful into interventions with families and children in a variety of settings, including hospitals, schools and treatment centers, to more effectively deal with stressors through both secular and spiritual means,” she said. “This fellowship helps to advance my career goals related to impactful research.”

Brelsford plans to seek external funding for a pilot intervention focused on spirituality-integrated care in the NICU and after hospital discharge for parents who are interested in an additional level of psychological support.

“I would recommend this fellowship to anyone who is interested in stretching their experiences and interests,” Brelsford said. “It is easy to be complacent in our research and course work, but this fellowship has allowed me to expand my knowledge and my experiences that will enrich my career and hopefully provide an impact to the community and my specific area of research for years to come.”

Any junior or mid-level faculty member or established research scientist at any Penn State campus is eligible to apply for the fellowship. Interested applicants should visit the Clinical and Translational Science Institute website for more information.

Wadsworth said a successful fellow will have a well-thought-out project in mind.

“One year is not a lot of time in the research world,” she said. “To be successful, the mentor-mentee team will need to develop a detailed plan for the work, including identifying a targeted community partner, prior to beginning the fellowship.  They need to be able to hit the ground running and not spend valuable time during the fellowship figuring out where to focus.”

For more information on the Community-Engaged Research Core's consultations, visit its webpage. Wadsworth co-leads the core with Dr. Jennifer Kraschnewski.