DrPH Program Hosts First Annual Symposium

2017 DrPH Cohort

The public health field has long complained about the divide between academic public health and public health practice. From the practitioners’ perspective, one underlying cause for this condition is that academic research is not directly relevant to day-to-day practice problems.   A principal aim of the UIC School of Public Health’s DrPH in Leadership Program is to close this gap.

On August 23, 2017 the UIC Doctor of Public Health in Leadership (UIC DrPH) program held its first annual Practice-Based Research Symposium, The Public Health Research Landscape: Exploring Practice-Based Research Paradigms. UIC DrPH is a distance-learning program for mid-career public health professionals, educating them in the leadership and research skills needed by adaptive leaders in our challenging public health environment.   Although public health professionals, influenced by medical research paradigms, often discuss aspirations to “evidence-based practice,” UIC DrPH faculty see limitations in this approach to integrating research and practice.  As Dr. Patrick Lenihan, DrPH Program Director, stated in opening the symposium: “The separation of research from practice in the production of knowledge is at the heart of the problem of making systemic health change.  A new approach is needed that recognizes that for research results to be relevant to practice, research questions should come from practice and ideally research should take place within practice settings with practitioners joining if not becoming researchers in the research enterprise.”

The symposium, which was co-sponsored by the Coordinating Center for Public Health Practice, the Center for Healthy Work, the Illinois Education and Research Center, and the MidAmerica Center for Public Health Practice, facilitated a conversation among faculty, researchers, students, and practitioners, from public health and allied fields.  The audience, which included DrPH students attending as part of the program’s annual Summer Institute, heard presentations of current and emerging approaches to practice-based/informed research. Dr. Jennifer Hebert-Beirne, an Assistant Professor of Community Health Sciences at UIC SPH, discussed her community-based participatory research (CBPR) efforts in Chicago communities focusing on community health equity and social determinants of health. She described the means she uses in her approach to CBPR to ensure shared learning among university-based researchers and community members who join the research team.  Dr. Hebert-Beirne emphasized that “health inequities are socially produced.” Therefore, university-based researchers need to understand their own social position with respect to the research question and partner community.  Research that privileges community members’ knowledge, expertise, and research questions, and addresses the imbalance of power and privilege of traditional research, will ultimately create more meaningful collaboration and transform productive research into social change.

Dr. David Stovall, UIC Professor of Educational Policy Studies and African-American Studies, presented his Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) study which addressed systemic inequality by attempting to bring theory to action. He has spent the last ten years working with community organizations and schools to develop curricula that address issues of social justice. Dr. Stovall emphasized that researchers “must be clear about how theory impacts and informs our work” but at the same time have to “shift the dial to ask questions of ourselves as people who are working with those who experience injustice.” Similar to Dr. Hebert-Beirne’s use of community researchers, Dr. Stovall’s YPAR model supports youth as researchers to “study up,” i.e. study the systems of power that impact them, including the intersectionality of school closings, public housing, and law enforcement policies.

Dr. Christina Welter, Clinical Assistant Professor in Community Health Sciences at UIC SPH, Associate Director of the DrPH Program, and Director of the MidAmerica Center for Public Health Practice, presented her and her DrPH colleagues’ emerging model for Pragmatic Systems Action Research through discussing lessons learned from her experience (as internal leader, then external researcher) in leading policy, systems, and environmental change, supporting upstream interventions to decrease obesity in Cook County. Combining approaches to knowledge creation from social constructivism, critical realism, pragmatism, and systems thinking, Dr. Welter emphasized the need in public health systems research to make assumptions explicit; see perspectives and connections within and across socio-ecological levels, including grassroots and “grasstops” organizational levels; explore and address social norms; and require collective learning-in-action, in order to build the capacity to support systemic change. Dr. Welter concluded her presentation by noting that, “the DrPH in Leadership program is about building leadership and scholarship in practice to unpack and understand complexity for the purposes of building the evidence about and for sustainable ways to create social change.”

Dr. Kieran McCartan is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the University of West England, and co-author, with Colin Robson, of the fourth edition of a seminal textbook, Real World Research (Wiley 2015), now used in DrPH courses.  Dr. McCartan was the invited symposium discussant, where he brought his extensive experience as a teacher, researcher, and public media commentator to synthesize key symposium themes: researcher credibility, accountability, and leadership are vital for practice-based research to have impact.  “Research is personal. You need to buy into and be invested in your research. The core of real world research is to reflect upon your role and conduct research that impacts upon you and your colleagues’ work. Reflecting on your role in the process is key. . . You’re responsible for translating experiences in a realistic way. Think about the questions, methodology, and tools you are using.”

To learn more about the UIC DrPH program and plans for next year’s symposium, contact drph@uic.edu.