Centered on Research
The college’s five world-class research centers help advance Penn State’s missions by creating training opportunities for students, housing experts that lead research in their fields, and by producing outcomes that positively impact individuals and communities.
Read below about a project being conducted in each research center, representative of countless evidence-based efforts being conducted throughout the college.
Preventing alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana use among youth
A current challenge to effectively prevent adolescent alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana use is determining how to transfer evidence-based programming from university-led research projects to sustainable, community-delivered programming.
The Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, with partners at Iowa State University, seeks to bridge that gap through an intervention delivery system called PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience (PROSPER).
“PROSPER is unique in that it facilitates school, community, and university partnerships to identify and involve key stakeholders across all levels. The goal is to identify the community’s most appropriate evidence-based programs and strategies to ensure sustainability,” said Stephanie Lanza, director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center.
PROSPER conducts trainings, performs ongoing needs assessments, monitors implementation quality, and evaluates intervention outcomes. This process unfolds as a partnership between communities and the PROSPER team, with scaffolding of support and technical assistance as needed.
“Recent findings published from the PROSPER randomized trial revealed that at age 19, individuals in communities running PROSPER were significantly less likely to report misusing prescription opioids than those in comparison communities who did not benefit from PROSPER-delivered interventions,” Lanza said.
Building on accumulated evidence for the impact of PROSPER on the spectrum of adolescent and young adult substance use, behavioral, and mental health outcomes, this finding suggests that PROSPER succeeds where other systems struggle.
PROSPER has been implemented in numerous Pennsylvania communities for more than 15 years, persisting beyond the original research grant awarded by the NIH.
Improving health care decisions
As part of the implementation of the Health Innovation in Pennsylvania plan, the state convened a multi-disciplinary workgroup to recommend a path to help Pennsylvanians effectively shop for health care. Dennis Scanlon, director of the Center for Health Care and Policy Research, served as a member of the workgroup.
The workgroup found that although private industry is investing heavily to provide cost and quality information to consumers, these shopping tools varied in usability, services covered, the information on quality of care provided, and uptake among consumers.
In 2017, the workgroup released its recommendations, which outlined specific actions Pennsylvania officials and administrators can take in this area.
“There is an opportunity for the state to establish guidelines or engage in policies that encourage and support the improvement and use of these tools,” Scanlon said.
Supporting faculty research through pilot-project funding
“Supporting faculty research is the core of what The Methodology Center does every day. Our grants fund research, and our infrastructure facilitates it,” said Linda Collins, director of The Methodology Center.
One way the center facilitates research is through pilot-project funding, which issues small grants designed to bring talented and energetic researchers into the field of methodology and to foster new collaborative research ties between Methodology Center researchers and other faculty at Penn State.
The Methodology Center seeks competitive proposals to develop methodology in the prevention and treatment of substance use, HIV, or related problems.
In 2017, Michael Russell, an assistant professor of biobehavioral health, received pilot funding to collect data that combines self-reported data on alcohol use with continuous data from ankle bracelets that measure blood-alcohol content through contact with the skin. The pilot funding enabled him to acquire the anklets required for the study. Methodology Center staff were also instrumental in helping Russell navigate complex internal review board matters that arose during the study.
Russell is completing his first round of data collection, and he will work with collaborators in The Methodology Center to develop innovative methods to analyze these complex data. Data gathered will provide information necessary to enable Russell to prepare an application to the National Institutes of Health for a larger grant to continue and expand this work.
Responsive parenting to promote healthy infant growth
One of the ongoing projects at the Center for Childhood Obesity Research, the WEE Baby Care Study, takes findings from previous research and implements them in two real world settings – the pediatrician’s office and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) clinics.
The center’s previous work, in collaboration with Dr. Ian Paul in the College of Medicine, showed that INSIGHT, an intervention to help first-time mothers use responsive parenting practices in the areas of feeding, sleep, soothing, and interactive play, reduced infants’ risk of developing obesity.
"Feeding a baby can be an easy and fast way to quiet an upset baby," said Jennifer Savage Williams, center director. "But we don't want parents to use feeding to soothe their baby if the baby isn't hungry -- crying is one of the last things a baby is likely to do if they are hungry. By understanding how their baby reacts and relates to his environment and establishing predictable routines early in life, parents are able to help their baby learn to self-regulate."
In the WEE Baby Care Study, the center is translating findings from the INSIGHT clinical trial in community settings by coordinating care between Geisinger and WIC clinics to deliver intervention messages from INSIGHT to low-income mothers, in settings where they already receive guidance on caring for their infant.
Cutting-edge research helps improve lives
The Center for Healthy Aging supports research by developing an infrastructure that faculty, post-doctoral fellows, and graduate students can leverage for their own research.
“We do cutting-edge research in the science of daily experience to better understand how the stress, pain, and sleep that we experience on a daily basis exert cumulative effects on our quality of life and health during the transition from midlife into older age,” said Martin Sliwinski, center director. “We have pioneered and continue to develop novel methods for the study of adult development and aging, including the use of mobile technology, such as smartphones, to better understand how people behave and function in their natural environments, including at home and at work.”
Much of this infrastructure was developed through a grant awarded by the National Institute of Aging, which supported the “Effects of Stress on Cognitive Aging, Physiology, and Emotion” (ESCAPE) Project. This project used mobile phones to monitor how people experienced and responded to everyday stress and how that stress affected their cognitive function using measurement procedure developed by Sliwinski.
In an ongoing large-scale clinical study, Sliwinski is extending the methods developed in the ESCAPE project to use mobile phones and wearable sensors to monitor stress, behavior, physiology and cognitive function in everyday life in order to improve the early identification of Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias.