Research by Roanoke professor, students leads to healthy change for neighborhood

by rcnewsblog on November 20, 2013

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Can research actually make an impact in the community?

Dr. Liz Holbrook, a professor of health and human performance at Roanoke College, discussed ways that academic efforts can lead to real change during a recent Roanoke College Coffee Shop Talk event, titled “It Takes a Village: The Role of the Academic Partner in Stimulating Community-Level Change.”

During her Nov. 7 talk at Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea in Salem, Holbrook described a research project that she and two Roanoke students completed last year. The project explored childhood obesity rates and the barriers to healthy living in a low income neighborhood in Roanoke.

Holbrook and her students explored 64 blocks of the West End neighborhood of Roanoke to collect data. They examined the availability of healthy food and walkability of the area, which includes the condition of sidewalks, the location of green space and crosswalks.

The research team then used information from physical fitness tests from the local school system that included home addresses to plot health student’s health information on a map of the neighborhood. Holbrook saw that there was a correlation between students’ environment and their risk for obesity.

“All the information that we collect trickles down to catalyze other organizations,” Holbrook said.

This project is community-based participatory research through which Holbrook hopes to influence policy and change in the area. She sees herself as an academic informant to the 38 non-profit organization partners who are already active in the community.

“She is providing a good backbone for all of those other organizations who are targeting very specific needs,” said Anna Cory of Salem, who attended the coffee shop discussion.  “It helps bring them together to organize around the data and become more focused on what they are doing.”

Cory added, “I think it was really engaging to hear about the research that is being done locally. I don’t think people hear that enough, that professors of [Roanoke] are actually involved in the local community and want to work collaboratively.”

After Holbrook presented the findings to local government officials and nonprofit organizations, she was able to see change begin to take shape. Police began patrol the West End neighborhood more frequently, community gardens have begun to take root, and cross walks have been installed.

“I think what she is doing is really amazing, and it’s really cool that you get to see an immediate impact. You don’t get that a lot with research. A lot of times it’s over time,” said Gabe Giersch, a Roanoke College senior who attended the talk.

In the future, Holbrook said she plans to conduct similar research in other communities in the Roanoke area. She also wants to expand her research to include the effects on children’s parents who live in this neighorhood.

-By Kayla Fuller ’14

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