Spotlight: Community-Engaged Research Center
You've heard about bringing research findings from the "bench to the bedside" so that patients can receive cutting edge preventive treatments and cures for human diseases. Katherine Kaufer Christoffel, MD, MPH, wants to build on that philosophy and take it one big step further. She intends to bring Northwestern's wide-ranging research breakthroughs from the bench to the "street or curb setting."
As Director of the Community-Engaged Research Center (CERC), which is under the umbrella of the Northwestern University Clinical and Translation Sciences (NUCATS) Institute, Dr. Christoffel sees herself and the new center as the bridge between researchers at Northwestern's clinical affiliates and the underserved populations of neighborhoods in Chicago.
That's the "taking it to the streets" part of her multi-pronged mission. Dr. Christoffel says she's up to the task. As Deputy Director of the Feinberg School of Medicine's Programs in Public Health within the Department of Preventive Medicine, she also serves as the Director for the Center on Obesity Management and Prevention (COMP) and Medical Director for the Consortium on Lowering Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC) at Children's Memorial Hospital, where she is an attending pediatrician. She also established Children's Nutrition Evaluation Clinic, among many other programs. No stranger to working with communities, Dr. Christoffel's career has included research based in primary care practices, schools, and community based organizations. She has a special interest in child development and injury prevention.
"We organized CERC not even a year ago because we realized we need to answer questions relating to the people living in our communities, based on where they live rather than a diagnosis," she says. That means relating to community organizers on their level and building relationships to figure out how Northwestern's pool of working researchers and their innovations can be brought to the community setting through primary care physicians.
"For example, we have a wonderful new bionic arm that's in use at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, one of our clinical affiliates, but when we tell our partners in the community about it, they say "we're poor, we'll never see that kind of technology in our neighborhoods." (The bionic arm allows an amputee to move his or her prosthetic arm as if it is a real limb simply by thinking, giving patients more natural movement and a greater range of motion.) "Our job is to identify those kinds of obstacles and see if they can be overcome and try to bridge the gap. In this case, we're trying to see if a medical equipment company can help us get that technology into the community setting rather than just be available at the medical center."
CERC is just beginning to build its infrastructure and reach out to representatives from nine community organizations in Chicago. Dr. Christoffel says her list of projects includes trying to optimize the health of people with diabetes and reducing lead poisoning in children. "In the case of diabetes, we can only do so much in the exam room," she explains. "But who goes with to the supermarket to explain the importance of buying healthy foods?"
She is also working on bringing research staff together so that everyone knows what everyone else is working on. The goal is threefold: to help faculty and staff benefit from knowing what each other is working on, to "foster synergy rather than chaos," and to help link researchers to the world outside of Northwestern.
"Community organizers would say 'someone was here from Northwestern - you must know professor so and so' and we realized we weren't talking enough amongst ourselves," says Dr. Christoffel. We need to be visible and connect so that we can be stronger. CERC isn't designed to do research, but to serve as a facilitator. Our job is to ask community organizers: How can we help you? What do you need? What are your goals? We can help make the connections from the researchers to the patients in the community."
To that end, Dr. Christoffel and her staff just had a meeting with 20 academics and 20 community organizers. They met at a restaurant, sitting across from one another at a long table so that they could have conversations, get to know one another, and talk about the community's needs and what researchers were working on that might benefit people in the neighborhoods.
"It was based on a version of 'speed dating' because we wanted to explore all the connections and needs," said Dr. Christoffel. "We wanted everyone to talk about projects that needed addressing and felt this was the way to do it. Our community organizers told us for them, it's about building relationships and trust. The way to foster that is to break bread so that's what we did. In the future, CERC hopes to build stronger bridges across many components," she said. Hopefully after many more meetings fostering connections between researchers and community, there will be a strong conduit from the bench, to the bedside, to the neighborhood.
This page last updated Sep 13, 2011