ECU Faculty Introduced to Research Cluster

Fourteen East Carolina University faculty members were introduced to the Health Behavior pan-university research cluster Thursday, offering opportunities for research collaborations to address health behaviors in the region.

In the fall of 2017, ECU launched seven pan-university research clusters, with an eighth planned for launch in 2018. Research clusters are part of a formal university strategy to connect interdisciplinary faculty and researchers who might not have connected through traditional means. With the clusters, faculty from across ECU can harness their partnerships and talent to advance Chancellor Cecil Staton’s Rural Prosperity Initiative and address pressing human health, education and economic disparities in our region and around the globe.

The Health Behavior cluster is co-directed by Dr. Sam Sears, professor of psychology and cardiovascular sciences, and Dr. Kim Larson, associate professor of nursing science.

This cluster aims to improve the health of those residing in rural regions in North Carolina by fostering direction and collaboration of scientists at ECU to combat negative health behaviors. These behaviors including smoking and lack of physical activity, as well as factors that lead to depression and stress. Members of rural communities are more likely to die of heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, stroke and unintentional injury than those living in urban regions.

“The identification and treatment of health behaviors in rural eastern North Carolina is a perfect arena for ECU to showcase the power of interdisciplinary research,” Sears said. “The challenge we have as a university is that we need to define the targets and the talent to solve these problems – that is what we are accomplishing today.”

The research clusters are the vision of Vice Chancellor Jay Golden and are being supported by the Division of Research, Economic Development and Engagement.  “Our division is working closely with the cluster co-directors and associate deans of research from all of our colleges and schools to ensure the faculty and student researchers in the clusters have all the tools and institutional support they need to be successful moving forward,” Golden said.

“I hope that our participants today recognize the mobilization of ECU’s support for helping our faculty to address these health behavior challenges through research and community engagement — it is a tremendous opportunity for ECU,” Sears said.

The cluster’s first objective focuses on affecting the health behavior of children by designing community intervention trails targeting birth-kindergarten and school-age populations. These interventions will address mental, heart and behavioral health. Faculty members broke into small groups at the meeting and discussed possible strategies to impact sexual behavior – with a focus on teenage pregnancy – and how to increase the physical activity levels of children.

Sears and Larson believe that through these small groups, faculty members will be able to connect with other ECU faculty members that have an interest in affecting health behaviors, growing the cluster and raising its impact and national prominence.

Dr. Christine M. Kowalczyk, assistant professor of marketing and supply chain management, said she was encouraged by the variety of ideas, experiences and resources that were shared at the event.

“I’ve done related research in the health behaviors field, and it felt like the research clusters provide an opportunity to increase the impact of my research – it’s a natural fit,” Kowalczyk said. “We don’t really cross over to the health sciences campus very much, so having the opportunity to meet potential collaborators and see how your research as part of a larger collaborative effort could make a difference was important.

“Now I have the opportunity to go back to my own department and share my experience today and try to connect other faculty members. We’re able to share these opportunities with colleagues now and encourage them to get involved in the cluster.”

Along with the Health Behavior Research Cluster, ECU has launched research clusters for Big Data and Analytics, Energy and Natural Resources, Marine and Coastal Systems, Human Health and Disease, Precision Health, and STEAM Education. The university will launch its Biomedical Sciences and Engineering Research Cluster prior to the fall of 2018.