Recovery Act Funding Opens Doors for a New Generation of Pacific Islander Researchers
When Helen "Lena" Yandall and Toano "Ono" Vaifale stepped onto the stage at San Diego's recent Pacific Islander festival, one of the country's largest events of this kind, the backstage jitters of the California State University, Fullerton students melted in a warm welcome from the crowd. Gaining confidence as they discussed their research, the pair brought issues of health disparities home by calling audience members "uncle" and "auntie."
Lena and Ono are research interns who conducted field surveys at the festival to explore the causes and results of insurance and health care access disparities among Pacific Islanders. Their work, like their lives, has deep roots within their community and they say they feel proud to be helping those who have helped them.
"Everyone was just amazed to see young Pacific Islanders doing research on health disparities, collecting data about the community for the community's benefit," said Ono. "Our work is giving Pacific Islanders a voice in the national health care conversation where before we've been unheard, and they're really rallying around our efforts to give back to the community."
Lena and Ono's work was made possible by a $44,000 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant. Awarded by the National Cancer Institute's Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities, the money is helping the Southern California Community Networks Program Weaving an Islander Network for Cancer Awareness Research and Training (WINCART) program address health disparities among Pacific Islanders by enabling young leaders to work in and for Pacific Island communities, becoming the next generation of health researchers. ARRA funding also enabled WINCART to expand its summer internship program from 5 volunteer to 10 paid students—an investment that's made a big difference.
"Like a lot of Pacific Islander students, I help contribute to a large portion of my family's economy," said Ono. "For me, the fact that this is a paid internship is huge. But my family also sees this experience beyond just the monetary benefit. They see this as a once in a lifetime opportunity."
Pacific Islanders in the continental United States are screened for cancer less frequently and have higher rates of cancer deaths than non-Pacific Islander populations. WINCART researchers say a lack of health and research professionals from Pacific Islander communities compounds the problem.
"Pacific Islander communities have a lot of experience with 'helicopter researchers' who fly in from other communities or academia, collect the data and leave without giving back or reporting back to the communities that they've studied. Pacific Islander communities are tired of being used for research purposes when they do not see any direct benefit or feedback" said Dr. Alek Sripipatana, Lena and Ono's mentor at WINCART. "But when they see Pacific Islanders getting involved as researchers, especially young people, they really get behind it and pull together for the program's success."
Dr. Sripipatana says that it's a challenge for Pacific Islander youth to see how careers in health or scientific research can be relevant to their own lives.
"Until I met Alek, I didn't know any Pacific Islander PhDs. When he explains to us how to do our research, coming from the same cultural background, that really helps," said Lena. "He knows our situations, our family life, because he comes from that too. It's really amazing to have another Pacific Islander show us how our work can benefit the entire community and be an opportunity for us to really give back."
"What we really want to see is that after our students learn firsthand about these health disparities, that they'll pursue educational opportunities in health-related fields," said WINCART Principal Investigator Dr. Sora Tanjasiri.
"Our students are doing everything in this program," said Dr. Tanjasiri. "They're investigating the issues, doing the literature review, doing the IRB applications, writing and conducting surveys, reporting back on the research—they're doing it all."
Lena and Ono have gone above and beyond, mobilizing and training a volunteer force to help collect community data. The team brought in 280 completed surveys, nearly triple the goal. Dr. Sripipatana anticipates that the work will lead to a research publication.
Although the paid positions have a set end date, both students have committed to continuing with the project as they prepare to report their findings back to the Pacific Islander community, a step they acknowledge is often lacking in community research.
"This internship has really enhanced my career path," said Lena, a biochemistry major. "I've always wanted to go into health, and now I really want health research to be a big part of that. I feel like I'm a part of something much bigger than when I first went into the program. I don't know any other Pacific Islander my age submitting articles for peer review."
The project has also introduced new skills and sparked new passions among students from outside of the sciences. "As a business major, I always thought I'd work in finance or accounting," said Ono. "But through this internship, health access has become a priority in my life. So now I'm looking for public policy and health advocacy opportunities."
Drs. Tanjasiri and Sripipatana hope that the work by the WINCART students will spread quickly to other communities and become a model for community-based participatory research. They said that by creating salaried jobs for these interns, the ARRA grant has helped attract additional funds from groups like the California Endowment and the College Access Foundation.
"Our communities are so proud of our students and we've got so much hope invested in them that this internship program is way more far-reaching than just this summer," said Dr. Sripipatana. "Our communities will hold these students accountable."
WINCART is a collaborative of eight community-based organizations and researchers from five universities (including three comprehensive cancer centers) to decrease cancer health disparities among Pacific Islanders in Southern California. WINCART is one of 25 grants supported by the National Cancer Institute Institute's Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities under the umbrella of the Community Networks Program (CNP.) WINCART collaborators have increased the understanding of health disparities, conducted health research, worked with community partners to do health outreach and education at 315 events reaching, and developed culturally competent cancer education materials. ARRA funding has provided WINCART the opportunity to build upon their success, offer paid internships to Pacific Islander students, mentor a new generation of health researchers, and expand efforts to understand and address health disparities at the community level.
Follow the research interns' progress at the ARRA WINCART blog: http://pipipeline.blogspot.com/
Learn more about the WINCART program: (http://wincart.fullerton.edu/)
Learn more about NCI's efforts to research and reduce cancer health disparities: (http://crchd.cancer.gov/)
(Weaving an Islander Network for Cancer Awareness, Research, and Training (WINCART (CA114591)) — PI- Dr. Sora Tanjasiri - (3U01CA114591-05S1)