In 2007 the National Institutes of Health awarded UMass Boston a $7.7M grant to establish the Horizon Center, a public health facility with a mission of substantially reducing health disparities through research, research-training, and community-based participatory research.
Roxbury, Massachusetts, a low-income community which is 51% African-American and 23% Hispanic, is home to the Horizon Center. The center's name reflects its four core missions of providing healthy options, research, interventions, and community organizing.
“What I hope to do is create a spectrum of research that cuts across the cellular and molecular levels to social groups,” says Celia Moore, the project’s lead principal investigator and director of the recently established UMass Boston Developmental Sciences Research Center. The work is part of the Developmental Sciences Cluster, one of eight transdisciplinary approaches, or clusters, to research intended to bring UMass Boston national attention and recognition.
One of the fundamental themes driving the Horizon project is having UMass Boston function as a ‘lab to the community,’ which involves listening to Roxbury residents and the health issues they face.
“If you have a health disparity, you need to find a way to connect what we’re doing in the lab to the real life problem,” explains Moore, who plans to further nurture and strengthen this critically important connection. “As a health disparities center, one of the things we’ve been doing a lot of is health and research education such as informal community training using health fairs and community-based coalitions. It’s a way to bring the expertise of the community to researchers who will use participants from the community.
“Moreover, the Horizon project spreads across institutes and even colleges within the university,” emphasizes Moore. Previous and ongoing research projects include Internet-enhanced health promotion for obese ethnic minority adolescents, led by Jessica Whiteley of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences’s Exercise and Health Sciences Department; adult health literacy, led by Lorna Rivera of the Latino Studies program; and substance abuse, led by Tiffany Donaldson of the Department of Psychology.
As Rivera’s study notes, there are about 98 million people in the U.S. who have basic or below basic literacy skills, mostly concentrated in minority communities. Health literacy is especially low, which is particularly alarming because, as Rivera explains: “We know that there is a very strong correlation between literacy and your health. So such programs have a lot of potential to make a difference.”
The UMass Boston-Roxbury community partnership has been instrumental in fulfilling the needs of both the community and the researchers: “The ideas for research can bubble up from the community. We have identified heart and kidney disease that way,” explains Moore.
UMass Boston’s involvement in the community is overseen by a local advisory board which functions as a neighborhood-level infrastructure for research, review, and advising. Founded in 2005, the Roxbury Community Research Advisory Board, known by the acronym C.R.A.B., is made up of community leaders and residents whose stated goal is to connect Roxbury residents to research institutions and “improve community understanding of and responsiveness to community-based and clinical research” through advocacy, advisory, and information dissemination.
The Horizon Center was established in 2007 through a partnership between UMass Boston, the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), and the Cherishing our Hearts and Souls Coalition of Roxbury. Though the partnership with HSPH ended in 2009, UMass Boston continues moving forward, creating more opportunities for both community members and researchers.
“While we are now freer to go our own way, we also have to invent what we are doing within UMass Boston,” says Moore. One new area of interest that came from the community involves examining major health disparities in infant and maternal health, specifically infant early development precursors such as the effects of environmental toxins, the connection between noise and sleep deprivation, the stress of poverty and violence on mother/infant relationships, and maternal depression.
“We want to ask, ‘How do these factors contribute to health disparities, and how can we step in?’” explains Moore.
In addition to benefiting the community, one of the project’s major goals is to improve research training and create more opportunities for career development. Faculty benefit from assistance with startup and initial research grants through the UMass Boston Venture Development Center, home of the Developmental Sciences Research Center, while students are provided with research training and employment experiences on campus. Students benefit as well through the scholars program at the Horizon Center, which offers training for undergraduates while providing them with financial support while assisting research faculty in the community, a vital and growing form of public service.
With the Horizon Center in Roxbury well under way, Moore wants to expand the Center’s neighborhood presence.
“The Roxbury center was set up by Harvard. Now we are looking to our neighbors in Dorchester. As a first step, we’re going to partner with the schools and recruit young minority men to become social mentors to younger students,” says Moore. “We also want to provide research support and training for established faculty members seeking to become involved in health disparities. The Horizon Center’s activities are open to all participants across campus.”