Redefining Research

by |

By Nicole Updegrove, ICH Summer Intern
Wesleyan University Psychology Student Class of 2014

Before my internship at the Institute for Community Health (ICH) this summer, when asked whether I planned to pursue a health research career or direct clinical work with patients, I chose patients every time. Clinical work provides visible, short-term help with long-term impact. In contrast, at my university, even research in applied fields such as psychology and sociology often felt utterly removed from the people it sought to help; the concept of the “ivory tower” seemed to ring true.

Throughout my undergraduate career, I’ve worked on a handful of research initiatives, including studying the link between family religion and depression and how nicotine addiction operates. This type of research is incredibly valuable, and will probably lead to big changes ten years down the line. However, the road to change is often paved with academic papers, which are published and (maybe) found and implemented years later by policy reform committees or dedicated individuals. Often, community volunteers who participated in experiments or filled out surveys will never experience the results of the research.

As a student striving to “make a difference” in my community, it seemed that research just wasn’t for me.

Despite these misgivings (and somewhat unexpectedly), I ended up working for the summer at ICH as an intern with a job description that sounded suspiciously like research. I combed through the previously scorned academic literature, looking for ways to measure an adolescent’s sense of control over his or her circumstances. I attended meetings with community partners to discuss the ways that trauma affects kids in Cambridge, and how to better help these kids in and outside the classroom. I worked to devise new ways of gauging the situational safety and emotional recovery of young girls involved in the sex trade. And even though I sat behind a computer most of the day, it felt a lot like I was helping people. The work I was involved in had community partners’ input and explicitly sought to improve services for the populations using them.

ICH was my first encounter with what is called “community-based participatory research,” an approach to research that is critical to ICH’s mission.  In CBPR, community partners (and their clients) who participate in research activities benefit directly from the work, often in real time rather than five or ten years later. During the short time I was at ICH, I got to see how participatory research approaches help community partners better utilize funding, time, and energy to serve the populations they work with. I saw firsthand how bridging statistics or  data analysis  with community interests and needs can improve people’s lives in visible, measurable ways. The sex trade survivor mentorship program, for example, should be able to use our tools to gain more funding to hire and train more mentors, as well as better identify needs among the girls that could be better suited. Advancements like these advance the health of an entire community.

As I wrap up my work at ICH and think about my career and continued studies after graduation, my parents and peers again ask – Will you research? Or will you work with patients? After my work with community partners here, I’ve started to realize that perhaps my answer really can be “both.”

Learn about the ICH Internship Program


The views expressed on the Institute for Community Health blog page are solely those of the blog post author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of ICH, the author’s employer or other organizations with which the author is associated.