Faculty members to start health communications research center

Katelyn Boone
Staff Writer

Four mass communications professors have won a $50,000 grant from VCU to develop a research center exploring where health and communications intersect.

The new Center for Media+Health will integrate health and communications research together and study the benefits of patient awareness in treatment.

Yan Jin, interim director of the School of Mass Communications, said the center’s core goal will be to help people make better health choices and more effectively manage their health.

“We need more effective, more creative and more innovative communication science and practice to address health disparity issues in our society,” Jin said. She said more accurate and engaging information and more effective access to the message, especially among people who have limited information access resources, will be a key focus of the center.

The Center will be split into two parts: the Meditrina Lab and the Health Communication Knowledge Dissemination Program. The Meditrina Lab will be equipped with an a host of physical monitoring equipment which allows researchers to measure a subject’s physical and emotional response to health media. This combination of physical and emotional reactions, called “psychophysical,” will help researchers gauge things like patients’ receptiveness to health information using different mobile platforms. The founders hope that by analyzing this data, health and communication professionals will be able to better educate patients.

“An informed patient is a healthier patient,” said Scott Sherman, an advertising professor and the new director of operations and outreach for the Center for  Media+Health.

The other half of the Center will be the Health Communication and Knowledge Dissemination Program. Involving faculty and students from all disciplines and other institutions, the program will   contribute to better and more effective public health campaigns.

The Center will be sponsoring an annual Health Communication Symposium, an online lecture series on global health, training seminars for psychophysiological experiments and service-learning courses that will focus on different aspects of health care and communications.

The Center plans to open these service-learning classes in the fall, though the exact subjects and material haven’t been formalized. Marcus Messner, the Center’s director of research and teaching, hopes to open one of VCU’s first massive open online courses next spring, similar to MIT’s OpenCourseware program that allows anyone with a computer access to the class free of charge.

The course is projected to include global public health lectures from international leaders in the medical and communications fields. It is yet to be determined whether the class will be open to the general public in addition to VCU students, but Messner has high hopes for the class.

Lauren Gerardi, a junior public relations major, was previously a radiation science major. She said that the new center will give her a lot of options to merge her new major with her old one.

“The Center also opens up a lot of windows and opportunities on what I can do in the public relations field,” she said.

“I was unsure for a while about public relations, but after interviewing Dr. Ernie Martin (director of the Meditrina Laboratory) and some of the other professors involved with the Center, health communications is a perfect fit with my background.”

There are only a handful of programs like the Center for Media+Health operating today that utilize psychophysical research data. One institution that has a similar lab is University of Missouri-Columbia. One of the co-founders of their Health Communications Research Center, Glen Cameron, is on the advisory board for the VCU Center for Media+Health. Cameron mentored Jin when she was a grad student at the Missouri School of Journalism and is scheduled to speak at the first Media+Health symposium next October.

The Center for Media+Health is one of 10 research projects to receive a $50,000 seed grant funding from the Quest Innovation Fund. The grant will last for one year with the potential for renewal through a competitive process. The fund is projected to last between one and three years.

The Quest Innovation Fund is designated to be a start-up fund for any VCU faculty member or student to start an innovative project. Projects are judged by a rubric that emphasizes, but is not limited to, how closely the project that furthers VCU’s Quest for Distinction.

Ten projects were selected for the grant in its inaugural year by a committee comprised of students, faculty and staff. Other recipients of this year’s grants include students Qasim Kaszmi and Usam Chandry, who plan to nationalize Emerging Health Leaders, a student group that they started at VCU three years ago.

Matt Woolman, director of creative entrepreneurship for the School of the Arts also won a grant this year for his project, “Creative Destruction Lab,” which would encourage students to attempt business concepts in a low-risk environment with support from resources within and outside of the university.

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