A creative partnership model brings teams of experts together to solve complex public health problems.
“We have to abandon the conceit that isolated personal actions are going to solve this crisis,” former Vice President Al Gore has said of climate change. Whether a problem is as monumental as global warming, or more emerging, such as the relatively sudden worldwide use of an insecticide whose effects are not fully understood, solutions will rarely arise from a single person or even a single laboratory. Rather, such difficult problems necessitate collaborations that span disciplines and organizations, challenge accepted methods, and even push established lexicons to shift.
This is the founding principle behind the Iowa Institute of Public Health Research and Policy’s collaboratory initiative. Two inaugural collaboratory teams just completed their first year of work via this new funding source available to teams anchored in the College of Public Health but extending beyond it. One team is focused on better understanding neonicotinoids, a relatively new class of insecticides. The other team is invested in creating data that can be leveraged by providers and public health professionals to improve the health outcomes of children born in Iowa.
THE TEAMS INCLUDE research scientists, physicians, public policy experts, epidemiologists, engineers, geologists, chemists, and others. This rich array of expertise and the fertile network of knowledge and contacts that members bring with them is what makes this model so ripe with possibility.
Vickie Miene, interim director of the Iowa Institute of Public Health Research and Policy (IIPHRP), says that in addition to spanning a spectrum of disciplines, the new program is intended to encourage team-building strategies. It is one part of the burgeoning institute’s work, which is focused on fostering new relationships within and outside of the University of Iowa.
Funded by a gift from Dale and Linda Baker and supplemented by the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, the collaboratory program is intended to create teams that are ready to respond rapidly to opportunities.
“In today’s funding world, you get maybe 60 days to respond to a call for a new grant or contract, and most of the time they’re looking for existing partnerships that are multidisciplinary,” says Miene.
Ideally, a successful collaboratory will lead to a sustainable research initiative that bolsters and builds upon the college’s three areas of excellence: rural health, comparative effectiveness research, and community engagement. Finding the kinds of complex topics that call for this approach isn’t difficult, but locating faculty leaders who appreciate the necessity and utility in an approach that can take many people out of their comfort zones is another matter. Miene is impressed by the success of the initial two collaboratories, both in the depth of their work and in their willingness to embrace the team-building aspects of the process.
“People have to be willing to get their hands dirty in learning collaboration,” says Miene. “They are the content experts, and our role at IIPHRP is to support them in their efforts.” To do so, the institute helps the teams to develop memorandums of understanding, create a team process, and make a plan for disseminating their work.
According to Miene, the institute could not have chosen better directors for the inaugural collaboratories. CPH Professors Kelli Ryckman and R. William Field, she says, “have been all in and completely willing to learn.”
FIELD LEADS THE TEAM “Human Exposure and Heath Risks from Neonicotinoid Insecticides,” which grew out of his graduate student Darrin Thompson’s strong interest in the occurrence and potential health effects of these emerging chemicals as a dissertation topic.
“Neonicotinoids have only been around for about 20 years,” explains Thompson, “but they are already the most widely used class of insecticides in the world.”
Although they were developed as a safer alternative to other insecticides, there is already substantive evidence that neonicotinoids are playing a role in the decline of honey bee populations. Beyond initial laboratory tests done by the manufacturers, there has been little research on human health effects of this insecticide, which is used by farmers, gardeners, and the timber industry, among others. According to Thompson, laboratory tests simply cannot take into account the myriad of variables that exist when these chemicals interact with environmental factors and other chemicals.
Field says the topic is especially pertinent to the state “since neonicotinoids are used as a seed coating for the majority of corn and soybean seeds in Iowa.” In the long-term, the collaboratory intends to study the potential health risk, if any, posed by chronic exposure to low concentrations. In the shorter term, the central research is that of Thompson’s dissertation, which includes measuring the levels in groundwater and in the urine of people who apply the pesticide. The team now comprises more than 15 active members and includes researchers from the UI College of Engineering, the Iowa Geological and Water Survey, the State Hygienic Laboratory, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, and the National Cancer Institute. The collaboratory is ready to publish a paper that will open a whole new portfolio of research, Miene says.
Describing one of their meetings, Miene adds, “I was in awe of the expertise around the table. There were geologists, engineers, epidemiologists, and a major scientist calling in from California. It’s really impressive how they are thinking about sustainability and the intricacies of the conversation.”
Field agrees. “It sort of reminds me—in a real sense rather than an imaginary one—of The Field of Dreams: If you start the collaborative, researchers with a shared interest and vision will come, and with each addition, the collaborative expertise expands.”
RYCKMAN HAS HAD A similar experience as her team, the Iowa Perinatal Health Research Collaborative, has grown since its inception. Ryckman’s biggest challenge wasn’t finding researchers, but rather creating a team committed to sharing research. “There has had to be some breaking down of barriers of what is mine and what is ours,” says Ryckman, a genetic epidemiologist.
“This first year has really been about creating shared resources and a similar language,” she observes. “There were already many projects out there related to this topic, but instead of us each doing our own siloed thing, we were challenged to consider if we could create some synergy to share and collect data. Is there a way to connect initiatives so that we can all benefit?”
The perinatal collaboratory has 12 regular members, including UI researchers from obstetrics and gynecology, neonatology, and pediatric neurodevelopment; as well as partners from the Iowa March of Dimes, the Iowa Department of Public Health, and the State Hygienic Laboratory.
Miene says that how to do research better is a key part of Ryckman’s project: “They are building and testing a database that will allow them to answer a lot of questions about outcomes of children born in Iowa, particularly those born preterm or low birth weight. They are gaining crucial understanding of how kids born under these circumstances are doing in multiple ways.”
It’s such an important issue, Miene adds, that the team has already received generous gifts from donors Dale and Linda Baker and Dr. Roger Williamson to help continue its work.
Traditionally, research comes with a strong sense of turf since success leads to future funding. There is understandable concern for who gets credit and what department or unit “owns” the grant funding around a project. As she’s created and nurtured her team, Ryckman simply wasn’t accepting that model.
As though summing up the modus operandi of the collaboratory and why the College of Public Health initiated it, Ryckman says, “Everything I have is ours—that’s my stance, and you have to give me the same buy-in. That’s the difference between simply collaborating versus really creating something beneficial to the broader research community and to the public.”
This story originally appeared in the spring 2018 issue of Insight magazine.
Assessing risks and developing strategies to ensure the safety of Iowa’s drinking water will be the focus when leading state and national water quality experts gather at a University of Iowa-sponsored event in Des Moines on September 21-22.
The symposium, “Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest,” will be held at Drake University. The symposium is a collaborative effort, co-sponsored by several Iowa-based institutions and organizations, including a number of centers at the University of Iowa, Drake University, the University of Northern Iowa, the Iowa Association of Water Agencies, and the Central Iowa Drinking Water Commission.
The 1 ½-day event is open to the public. Additional information regarding agenda, registration, hotel, and parking is available at ehsrc.org. Alternatively, call (319) 335-4756 to speak with an organizer.
This symposium will feature Iowa-based and nationally recognized speakers and discussion panels on a variety of drinking water issues facing Iowa, the Midwest, and the nation. Some of the topics to be addressed include the Health Impacts of Nitrate in Drinking Water, Drinking Water Treatment Concerns, New and Emerging Drinking Water Threats, and Communicating with the Public on Drinking Water Issues.
Water quality in the State of Iowa has been an increasing public health concern in recent years, primarily due to nitrate levels that exceed U.S. EPA standards. As this and other contaminants continue to pose public health threats via our waterways and resources, drinking water treatment, contaminant surveillance, and regulation continue to be at the forefront of environmental health concerns in the Midwest.
Dr. Peter Weyer, director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC) at the University of Iowa, is both a co-organizer and presenter for the symposium, and looks forward to the exchange of information and ideas.
“The symposium will bring together state and national experts on safe drinking water and public health to share with Iowans some of the current and future challenges to our drinking water supplies,” says Weyer. “It will provide an excellent forum for drinking water professionals to share their challenges in managing public drinking water systems.”
University of Iowa sponsors include the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center, the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, the Public Policy Center, and the Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research. Additional symposium co-sponsors include the Iowa Public Health Association; Iowa League of Cities; and the Iowa Environmental Council.
A new study from the University of Iowa shows that a pair of common chemicals that manufacturers use to make plastic food containers, water bottles, and other consumer products do not contribute to obesity to the extent of the chemical it’s replacing.
The chemicals — bisphenol F and bisphenol S (known as BPF and BPS) — are being used increasingly by food packaging manufacturers as substitutes for bisphenol A (BPA), which studies have found disrupts endocrine systems and causes numerous health problems. BPA is used in many kinds of packaging for snacks and drinks, canned foods, and water bottles. The chemical is absorbed into the body mainly through the food or water it contacts in the container.
But concern was raised several years ago when numerous studies found BPA increases the risk of various health issues, in particular obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. A consumer backlash erupted after the studies received media attention so manufacturers started reducing the use of BPA in some consumer products or even eliminating it in so-called “BPA-free” products by replacing it with such alternatives as BPF and BPS.
However, little is known on the potential impact of BPF and BPS exposure in humans. The new University of Iowa College of Public Health study is the first to determine the health impacts of BPF and BPS exposure on obesity in humans. Using data from a nationwide population-based study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the researchers confirm that BPA is associated with increased obesity in humans. But the study found no links between obesity and either BPF or BPS at the current exposure levels.
However, the researchers warn that fewer products currently use BPF and BPS–BPA still has more than half the global market share for the chemicals, and the average concentration of BPF and BPS is about one-fourth that of BPA in the US population. Whether BPF and BPS pose an increased risk of obesity at the same population exposure levels as BPA remains unknown. Future studies will be needed to confirm the results, as BPF and BPS are likely to replace BPA in more consumer products.
The study, “Bisphenol A substitutes and obesity in US adults; analysis of a population-based cross-sectional study,” is published in the June 2017 issue of the Lancet Planetary Health.
The research team included lead author Buyun Liu, along with Yangbo Sun, Guifeng Xu, Robert B. Wallace, and Wei Bao (corresponding author) from the Department of Epidemiology and Hans-Joachim Lehmler from the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health in the University of Iowa College of Public Health. The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health through the University of Iowa Environmental Health Sciences Research Center (NIEHS/NIH P30 ES005605).
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More than 180 Iowa science researchers and faculty from 38 Iowa colleges and universities, including more than 15 faculty associated with the University of Iowa College of Public Health, have endorsed the Iowa Climate Statement 2016 and efforts to expand voluntary, incentive‐based programs and initiatives for farmers, ranchers, and forest owners to confront human-caused global warming.
“Iowa Climate Statement 2016: The Multiple Benefits of Climate-Smart Agriculture,” was released on October 5. This year’s statement centers around the U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative “Building Blocks for Climate-Smart Agriculture.”
The climate statement champions proven conservation techniques such as planting perennial plants on marginal cropland and reduced-till or no till farming that would decrease nation-wide net emissions and increase carbon storage in soil. Statement authors note that the document is part of a larger effort, strengthened by the December 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to offset human-caused climate change.
“Iowa’s leadership through wider adoption of conservation practices will benefit our state, while these practices lessen human contribution to net greenhouse gas emissions,” according to the statement. “Iowa – once replete with soil carbon built by deep‐rooted perennial vegetation – can reduce net greenhouse gas emissions with crop‐perennial systems that pull heat‐trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and rebuild soil carbon. Thus Iowa – already a world leader in agricultural production and products – could now also take pride in “carbon‐storage farms” that also improve soil health, wildlife and pollinator habitat, and water quality.”