February 2, 2021

What started out as thoughtful conversation between University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill colleagues on the 2019 Tar Heel Bus Tour has turned into a successful pilot program that engages communities through data science, public policy and service to address community-specific needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jeffrey Warren, executive director of the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, meets with members of The Graduate School’s Boundary Spanners team. Three of the six Boundary Spanners scholars are students at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Jeffrey Warren, executive director of the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, meets with members of The Graduate School’s Boundary Spanners team. Three of the six Boundary Spanners scholars are students at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Sponsored by the UNC-Chapel Hill Graduate SchoolSouthern Futures Initiative and the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory — which was established by the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) in 2016 to deploy the collective research and policy expertise of UNC System faculty and staff for practical use — the I4 Boundary Spanners launched as a focused, six-month program in the summer of 2020. (The four “I”s are: Include, Identify, Investigate and Influence).

The program is one of more than 85 research projects underway across 14 UNC System schools.  Funded by a $29 million appropriation by the NCGA to the Collaboratory in May 2020, the funding supports research on treatment, community testing and prevention of COVID-19. I4 Boundary Spanners is among a subset of 15 faculty projects — from among the 45+ total Collaboratory-funded COVID projects at UNC-Chapel Hill — that is working with Innovate Carolina and the Institute for Convergent Science to apply a rapid innovation methodology designed to speed its results.

The mission of the program is to train a diverse group of Carolina graduate students as I4 Boundary Spanners scholars: students who appreciate and can mobilize the dataverse to empower their communities to include, identify, investigate and influence around issues that impact their physical, environmental and economic health

Part of the training that graduate students receive is focused on humanistic skills. The scholars benefit from working across disciplines and centering stories of how policy impacts real people. Students who are not just working with quantitative data but also with qualitative data leverage the power of people’s stories to affect change in their communities.

For example, most legislators as well as the general public may see a science policy report as just numbers and graphs. But if those reports include historical interviews, video snippets of constituents and the importance of a community issue to its residents, then added elements illustrate the impact of science in the real world in ways raw data cannot.

The idea for I4 Boundary Spanners was sparked with the release of a report by the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering, which is a congressionally mandated advisory committee to the National Science Foundation (NSF) suggesting more can be done by the NSF in the space of community-engaged research as a way to enhance scientific pipelines and broaden participation.

“More and more, we’re seeing taxpayers who don’t trust science and don’t necessarily want to underwrite science,” says Suzanne Barbour, PhD, dean of the Graduate School. “By putting students in the community where they can be the face of science, we have the opportunity to make science more approachable, more palatable and hopefully more valued by communities.”

To ensure the I4 Boundary Spanners students were able to hit the ground running with their projects, they were treated to an Innovate Carolina design thinking session led by Liz Chen, PhD, assistant professor of health behavior at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and Innovate Carolina’s design thinking lead. The session helped students think through their projects by examining the human need and then working through a creative process to find a solution that would be desirable, feasible and viable to meet that need.

“Millennial graduate students want to make an impact now, not 20 years from now,” adds Barbour. “They want to see direct impact of the things they’re working on now, ultimately seeing results in something that makes a difference.”

Already, the impact of the program reaches far and wide for both the scholars and the communities that they’ve worked with. The program can also enhance the overall educational experience for Carolina graduate students.

“Increasingly, our graduate students are expressing interest in career paths outside of academia,” says Barbour. “The I4 Boundary Spanners program allows our graduate students to not just use their technical skills but their people skills as well to get into communities and make a difference. That’s a big selling point for this program.”

More than 40 graduate students applied, with six scholars chosen to participate. Throughout the pilot program, the leadership team regularly met with the scholars to assess their progress, provide guidance and mentorship, and exchange best practices.

The six I4 Boundary Spanners scholars and their projects are:

  • Wesley Hamilton, doctoral student in mathematics, for the project COVID-19: Commerce with Confidence’ Simulator.
  • Jazmyne Jones, master’s degree student in social work, for the project Understanding Workers’ Transition to New Digital Labor Jobs.
  • Andreina Malki, doctoral student in geography, for the project Testing the Keys to NC’s Economic Recovery.
  • Rumana Rabbani, doctoral student in health policy and management, for the project Gearing Up: The Response of Manufacturing Extension to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
  • Luke Carmichael Valmadrid, master’s degree student in public health (health equity), for the project Policy and Policy Communication in Polarized Times.
  • Cason Whitcomb, master’s degree student in public health (health behavior), for the project Supporting Adolescents with Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors in the Context of COVID-19.

When the pilot wrapped up in December 2020, the scholars shared their experiences and key accomplishments with the leadership team. Because of the pilot’s success, the I4 Boundary Spanners team already has applied for a grant to continue and expand upon the work of the program into 2021 as a multi-University collaboration across the UNC system.

“Many UNC graduate students don’t know what options are out there to engage with the community, including options around policy and media and in public-facing science,” adds Barbour. “I think it’s really important for students to have that perspective.”

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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