When Melody Goodman was starting her career as a public health researcher, she wanted to partner with community organizations interested in improving health on Long Island, near where she worked at Stony Brook University.
“The community members were interested, but skeptical,” said Goodman, who is now the vice dean for research and professor of biostatistics at the NYU School of Global Public Health. “They had some experience engaging with the research in the past that wasn't great. They said to me, ‘It seems like if we're going to partner with you in this thing called research, we should know more about research. Would you train us in it?’ I said, ‘Absolutely, we can train you.’ That was a no-brainer.”
Goodman secured a grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a training program to introduce community members to public health research. Modeled off of a master of public health, the “mini MPH” provides a survey of public health, with weekly sessions covering topics including epidemiology, health equity, quantitative and qualitative research methods, clinical trials, health policy, and institutional review boards.
The initiative grew and evolved into the Community Research Fellows Training program when Goodman moved to Washington University in St. Louis. Meaningful partnerships with local organizations led to the development of a patient research advisory board, where Washington University academics could get advice from community members on their research. Through the training program, participants created projects focusing on health education in African American churches, mental health screenings for financially precarious women, and working with homeless shelters to improve resources for older residents.
This spring—as the Washington University program Goodman founded celebrates its 10th anniversary—NYU School of Global Public Health’s Center for Anti-racism, Social Justice & Public Health launched its own Community Research Fellows Training program with its first cohort of 22 fellows. They are engaged in health-related work in their communities across the New York metropolitan area, from the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House and Stonewall Community Development Corporation to the Ladies of Hope Ministries and Equal Justice USA.
“I'm from New York City—I was born and raised here,” said Goodman. “What better place to do this type of work than New York?”
NYU News spoke with Goodman about her work alongside New Yorkers and their shared commitment to reducing health inequities.
What drew you to research that engages local communities?
Many researchers come to public health with interests in diseases like diabetes or cancer, and they want to spend their career working on that. But I'm a math person, so I didn't come to public health with a disease. I was interested in everything—for instance, why are Black and white health so different in this country?
Community-based participatory research allows people who are impacted by problems to say what the research should be. I came into research because I wanted to solve problems that people cared about solving, not problems that I think are important and should be solved. I wanted my work to be really applied as a statistician.
This idea of community-based participatory research is how you work with communities to develop important questions, to work on problems, to develop solutions. As someone who works with numbers, this is a way for me to have a real, meaningful impact.
What are the benefits to universities and communities from a program like this?
I think a lot of people want to get into research, but not a lot of people spend the time on the development of partnerships. Training is a great way to start a partnership. Institutions are notoriously known for being “takers” in relationships, particularly with communities, so it's often not the case that we start a relationship by giving anything.
But with this program, community members come to our campus and our state-of-the-art facilities. We treat them like we would treat any other NYU student. They're getting world-class instruction from great faculty members.
I think the best thing that comes out of this—and it's not even my intention—is building a great relationship between the community and the academic institution. It's like fixing a strained relationship. Many of these communities have a not-so-great experience with institutions, so it’s important to let them see what institutions can offer their communities, and how to engage and access researchers.
I don't want to diminish the research that comes out of a professor's brain. But the fellows are thinking about immediate, real problems that they're experiencing in their work day to day. They may be experiencing something and think, “If I had some research or some data, we could fix this issue, or I can advocate to get this issue fixed.”
Tell us about your first cohort of New York City fellows.
This cohort includes community health workers, board members of community-based organizations, a doula working in the Bronx to improve maternal and infant outcomes, and even the Queens Deputy Borough President. In Queens, they’re thinking about doing some work in the Queensbridge housing project, the largest housing project in the country, so the fact that the person who is going to lead that is going to get trained first and have these tools and resources is so important for that community.
The interesting thing about this group of fellows came out in their introduction to epidemiology and social epidemiology lecture. Many of them were on the ground during COVID, doing front-line, public health prevention work. Even though they have different areas of interest, the pandemic impacted them all and put them all in this shared space. This is the first time I’ve run this program where the students said, “I need more epidemiology!”
This is the best group of students to teach—they're so engaged that our faculty cannot make it through their slides! They ask so many great questions and have great stories to contribute, and make the discussion richer with their real-world examples and lived experiences. All the data we're giving them is New York City-based, and so they have a lot of context for that.
What do fellows take away from this program?
What I really hope they walk away with is to be good consumers of research. We do a lot of direct marketing to consumers of research these days, but most people haven't been trained to understand it. There's good research, and there's bad research. And we now put the onus on the public to make those decisions or live with the media's decisions.
I also want them to know how to partner with academic institutions, and the benefits and risks of doing so. I know how great of an asset academic institutions can be to communities, but many people don't know how to access that. I hope that they understand how to tap into what it means to be in New York City with all these resources—universities, great libraries, knowledge—what it can mean for them and the work that they're doing. They're already running programs, but I think sharpening their skills, being up to date on the latest information, and knowing how to access experts doesn't hurt.
One of our fellows this year said I should put a disclaimer before people apply that says, “you'll never look at your community the same way again.” You’ll learn some things you just can't unlearn, and for some people, it was taking off the rose-colored glasses. When you understand the history of this country, there's a reason why things play out the way they play out.