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Interdisciplinary Research

Interdisciplinary Research

Dr. Jo Robins of the School of Nursing and Dr. Wendy Kliewer of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

*Reprinted from the VCU News Center

Sathya Achia Abraham, University Public Affairs

Frances Dumenci,
University Public Affairs

The Virginia Commonwealth University Presidential Research Quest Fund, or PeRQ Fund, formerly the Presidential Award Incentive Program, has announced its fifth round of internal funding awards totaling more than $850,000 to support faculty engaged in new, emerging or continuing research.

For 2013, 18 awards involving 23 faculty members received funding, supporting projects across the institution from the schools of Medicine, Allied Health, Arts, Education, Engineering, Nursing, Social Work, Dentistry, Business and Pharmacy, and from Life Sciences and the College of Humanities and Sciences.

The entire list of awards can be found at

“This fund provides new opportunities to researchers at all points in their careers across VCU and reflects our growing research enterprise,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “Our investment is made knowing that the work that begins with the support of these resources will go on to receive significant external research funding and advance important scholarship and research.”

Since 2010, this unique program has brought together investigators interested in common research paths from across schools and within departments to share expertise and knowledge.

One such example of interdisciplinary research is the work of Wendy Kliewer, Ph.D., chair and professor of psychology in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, and Jo Lynne Robins, Ph.D., assistant professor from the VCU School of Nursing, who received an award for Project HEART. Their study will examine the impact of stress on the physical body for mothers of teenagers in underserved communities in the Richmond area and its surrounding communities. Also, the study will examine relationships between stress and resiliency on heart health in adolescents and mothers living in underserved communities.

Different disciplines coming together

Project HEART brings together Kliewer’s expertise in working with underserved, at-risk adolescents, particularly around the psychosocial concept of resilience, and Robins’ expertise in women’s health. Their partnership was facilitated by Robins’ research mentor, Nancy McCain, D.S.N., Nursing Alumni Distinguished Professor in the VCU School of Nursing. Kliewer and Robins share an interest in improving resiliency, people’s coping abilities and heart health.

In prior work, Kliewer examined the resiliency of adolescents from underserved communities through psychosocial measures. She found that the teenagers’ level of resiliency – how they cope and what they feel – was based on the level of resiliency their mothers displayed.

Interested in viewing the bigger picture, Kliewer wanted go beyond the psychosocial outcomes to understand how psychosocial and physiologic effects come together when people are dealing with possible chronic stress. This required her to expand her research model to one that would examine the accumulative wear and tear on the body – which is an allostatic load research model.

That’s where Robins’ expertise came in.

“My research brings the biological piece,” said Robins. “This initial study allows us to look at teens and their mothers across several psychosocial and physiologic measures.”

With Robins on board, the research will probe biological measures not typically examined in psychology.

Robins’ research was largely based on looking at cardiometabolic risks of women between the ages of 35 and 50. Specifically, she was researching the trajectory in women where at mid-life they gain weight – particularly abdominal weight – and how that abdominal fat acts more like an endocrine organ. The abdominal fat seems to produce hormones and other chemical messengers very much like the immune system and other systems in the body do.

The research team will partner in a community-based model in which they plan to collect biologic information from 100 adolescent/mother pairs in the Richmond area. The collected information will include weight, cholesterol, insulin levels and blood sugar to see how bodies adapt when under stress. In addition, there will be extensive questionnaires and qualitative interviews.

“We hope that the lab measures will give us an idea of what they look like at baseline – what are their particular life stressors, where are they physiologically in terms of weight and blood sugar for example,” said Robins.

Ultimately, Kliewer and Robins hope to gain insight and feedback from the participants to develop an intervention to improve coping and resilience.

“We are asking them to share information about their lives. We hope ultimately this will lead to more empowerment,” said Robins.

“We are very interested in creating a partnering relationship with these individuals, based on what they perceive they need. Both the research team and participants bring expertise and insight. We both can come to the table to determine what will make a difference,” said Robins.

Robins said it is critical to build a respectful relationship between the research team and the study participants. She said that by gaining valuable insight from participants, researchers will be able to have a meaningful impact on the community.

This year, the Presidential Research Quest Fund received 65 applications from schools and colleges across VCU. Of the 65 applications, 18 were recommended for funding to the PeRQ Fund Review Committee.

“As an institution, this really says from the top level, from President Rao, and throughout the university, that our focus is on being a research-intensive university,” said Robins.

“We should be making a difference in the lives of the people in Richmond and the surrounding communities. That is part of the purpose of the university … So the interdisciplinary partnerships and community partnerships are very important – those things will directly impact our ability to attract external funding in the future and aligns itself with VCU’s strategic plan, Quest for Distinction,” she said.

The university supported this round of PeRQ research through nearly $500,000, and the units provided matching dollars totaling more than $350,000. PeRQ dollars provide 60 percent of the award and the faculty member’s department and/or school provided 40 percent. The funding period is 18 months beginning July 1.

Creating collaboration. Advancing science. Impacting lives.