Solving problems starts with working together to address needs facing the nation

Aimee Roundtree, College of Liberal Arts
The theme of the 2018 Health Scholar Showcase: Building a Healthy Community

Texas State now a major player in health research

by  Julie Cooper

Solving problems starts with working together to address needs facing the nation

If this were a game of “Jeopardy,” the answer, in the form of a question, would be: What is the Translational Health Research Initiative?

The clue: This is how Texas State University promotes health research collaboration among faculty, students, corporate partners, and healthcare providers in the community.

The Translational Health Research Initiative (THRI) includes academic programs across the university such as nutrition, psychology, physical therapy, communication studies, mass communication, sociology, biology, chemistry/biochemistry, education, geography, health information, communication disorders, social work, and clinical laboratory science — all working together to answer the needs of the community and promote health in Texas.

For Dr. Walter Horton, associate vice president for research and federal relations, the idea is connecting the basic science with a problem. “In this case, it was to promote intentional research that fits into this idea of research with relevance — or applied research. The focus is on health: translating basic knowledge into an impact on health.

“The message is: Texas State is as much a player in health research as any university in Texas. We just have a different way of doing it,” he says. Horton knows health research, having previously led a team at Northeast Ohio Medical University. He also conducted translational research for the National Institute on Aging while at the National Institutes of Health.

"The message is: Texas State is as much a player  in health research as any university in Texas."

—Dr. Walter Horton,
associate vice president for research and federal relations

It was President Denise M. Trauth and Dr. Gene Bourgeois, provost and vice president for academic affairs, who initially identified the health research pattern among the faculty as they were reviewing tenure and promotion packages over several years. “They started noting the remarkable number of faculty whose research really had an outcome on health,” Horton says. “I think at one point they counted over 140 faculty who had demonstrated research focused on health and that number has continued to grow.”

“We have now identified nearly 225 Texas State faculty who are actively engaged in health research,” says Bourgeois. “Their innovative efforts as part of the THRI will truly revolutionize healthcare and its delivery for Texans. Their work will ensure healthier lives for Texans.”

speaker in room
2018 Health and GIS Conference

The university’s idea is to invest in a campus-wide research infrastructure to support innovation and partnerships that directly connect discoveries in the lab to real-world health issues in clinics and communities. Leading the initiative is Dr. Melinda Villagran, director of THRI. She is also a professor of communication studies in the College of Fine Arts and Communication. Villagran was invited by the provost to write a proposal for how Texas State could support the growing number of multidisciplinary health researchers across campus. When Horton joined Texas State in 2016, THRI became fully operational and now spans all 10 of the university’s colleges.

Villagran previously worked on Capitol Hill and has earned several million dollars in external funding for her health communication research. A former chair of Communication Studies, she is currently the principal investigator on Networx, a program funded by St. David’s Foundation to improve maternal health in Hays County by connecting underserved women with local health services.

In some ways, Villagran is like a matchmaker. She works to connect faculty researchers across campus to increase interdisciplinary and funded health research activities. “As a matchmaker, I don’t cause anyone to get married — I just introduce them. The thing that is so cool about this is that the provost and the president recognized that it would be worthwhile for us to invest in our university, to make sure that people have support that they need, but also that they have pipelines that are established to get the results of their research to the people that can benefit from it,” Villagran says. What really matters, she adds, is taking the ideas from campus directly to clinics and communities to improve health. “To me that’s the story. There are not many places that see that vision.”

Horton explains Villagran’s role this way: “If the grant is between engineering and computer science, well then that’s where the grant goes. But what she does is to align that funding with funding that comes in through maybe communication studies or health professions,” he says. “It is her job to promote and communicate all of that activity under the Translational Health Research Initiative.”

“At the end of the day, we are all funded researchers. Some of us are funded by the state of Texas. We all have a commitment to find resources to do the work that we need.There’s not going to be enough to go around if we all go to the same source,” Villagran says. “We need to broaden the number of sources and then make sure that the people we work with see value in what we do. But also, make sure our work is translated to improve health and healthcare.”

“At the end of the day, we are all funded researchers. Some of us are funded by the state of Texas. We all have a commitment to find resources to do the work that we need."

—Dr.  Melinda Villagran,
director of THRI and professor of communication studies

In spring 2017, faculty presented health research at the first Health Scholar Showcase. The theme was “Accelerating the Translation of Research to Improve Health in Our Community and the World.” Subjects included health disparities, vulnerable populations, mental wellness, interventions, autism, dementia/aging, patient/provider communications, and mobile technologies. This year’s event, with the theme “Building a Healthy Community,” showcased 55 research projects and included an interactive panel discussion with representatives from Research!America, the St. David’s Foundation, and Special Olympics.

“It was clear from the Health Scholar Showcases that Texas State  researchers could have a major impact on the health of Texans, especially community health,” Horton says.

The Office of Research and Sponsored Programs offers internal funding opportunities for researchers. The multidisciplinary internal research grant program (MIRG) is an internally funded grant competition that supports multidisciplinary research projects that are federal-ready or near federal-ready with the goal of enabling a greater success rate for research teams that seek federal awards. “For the last two years we’ve done health MIRG. We required that all the grants submitted for that funding be focused on a health outcome. That’s brought together the idea that it is multidisciplinary, with collaborative teams and from different colleges,” Horton says.

The university has also brought researchers together with targeted grant opportunities. “When Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas issued a call for grants, we used the health scholar identity to bring a team together to submit,” says Horton. Other sources of funding, he says, include the National  Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Health Resources and Services Administration.

Recently, the Texas State University Health and GIS Conference was held at the Texas State Round Rock Campus with about 130 researchers from a dozen universities from across the U.S. and Canada. Medical providers and representatives from various government agencies attended the conference organized by the Department of Geography and the Institute for Government Innovation. The idea that the geography of where you live matters to your health was the impetus for the conference, which was developed by Dr. Alberto Giordano, professor and former chair of the Department of Geography, and Dr. Lawrence Estaville, professor and director of the Texas Atlas Project. Conference participants listened to panels of experts who explained how healthcare and geographic information systems (GIS) go hand in hand.

“Some may think that GIS just means maps and data but it’s really about location analysis,” says Dr. Rebecca Davio, director of the Institute for Government Innovation. “Location is pivotally important in determining your health. If you’re a child who lives in a neighborhood that doesn’t have sidewalks, doesn’t have parks, and it doesn’t have access to a grocery store where you can buy fresh fruit and vegetables, chances are your health is going to suffer, and it may suffer your entire life if you stay in that environment.”