September 7, 2016
Elizabeth Chen, MPH, and Cristina Leos, MSPH, health behavior doctoral students at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, have won a $325,000 award from Innovation Next, a program of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
The award is the largest ever made to a student or a student group at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Vichi Jagannathan, Master of Business Administration candidate at Yale University School of Management, is a third member of the RealTalk team. Chen, Leos and Jagannathan are the co-founders of MyHealthEd, a new nonprofit organization that focuses on improving health education for youth through the use of technology.
MyHealthEd’s proposal to Innovation Next, called “RealTalk,” is to create a phone-based app for middle-school students in rural North Carolina and Texas. The app will provide sex education through daily storytelling, which the team hopes will produce a higher potential for engagement and effectiveness than do current sex education curricula.
“As a former teacher, I am thrilled to continue working alongside middle-school students as they guide us in developing a sex education app that resonates with them,” Chen said. “As we forge ahead, I am also excited to build new skills in nonprofit management and marketing so that we can successfully develop Real Talk and disseminate it broadly.”
Leos said that one of her goals for graduate training at Carolina has been to integrate innovative techniques from diverse fields to better understand adolescent sexual health.
“This competition pushed us to learn new skills and completely rethink how we approach sex education,” she said. “The middle-school students with whom we worked taught us so much about how to engage them using technology, and our job was to apply those insights to a product that would help improve their sexual health. Real Talk presents sex education in a way that resonates with middle-school students, and we are confident that it will transform how students across the country learn about sex and relationships.”
Over the next few months, the team members will continue working with middle-school students in North Carolina and Texas to refine their idea, begin building the app and establish partnerships with nonprofit organizations that serve youth.
In March 2016, 10 teams from a total of 127 entries were chosen as finalists in this year’s competition. Those 10, including MyHealthEd, were awarded preliminary funding of $80,000 each to develop their ideas. Between March and August, Chen, Leos and Jagannathan participated in three Innovation Next-funded workshops with IDEO, a global design and innovation consulting firm. The experience allowed them to research their target audiences and work on prototypes for the app.
As one of the five awardees from the 10 finalists, the MyHealthEd team will be able to develop the app into a testable resource. IDEO and the National Campaign will assist with the production of an audience-tested and medically accurate product, ready to be marketed in 2018.
“The declines in teen pregnancy and childbearing over the past two decades have been historic,” said Lawrence Swiader, vice president of digital media at The National Campaign. “These interventions will help ensure that this important national success story continues. Each concept adds something new to the field and addresses audiences that previously have been underserved.”
“We’re over the moon about this award!” said Barbara K. Rimer, DrPH, dean and Alumni Distinguished Professor at the Gillings School. “It’s great recognition of the wonderful work Liz, Cristina and Vichi already have done in developing Real Talk. This is also an amazing opportunity for them to get help from some of the best people anywhere and the resources to make Real Talk a marketable reality. We are so proud of them – and so appreciative of the many people at the Gillings School and the University who helped them become a winning team.”