Undergrads learn flexibility in community-engaged research

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Eric Prince
Eric Prince, a senior majoring in health, physical education and exercise science, is doing research to better understand changes in adolescents’ bodies after weight change.

Early this summer, Eric Prince’s undergraduate research appeared to be going great. A Virginia Commonwealth University senior majoring in health, physical education and exercise science, Prince had just been awarded one of the university’s three undergraduate fellowships for community-engaged and translational research.

With financial backing for his research — a rarity for undergraduates — Prince was working with Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU’s Teaching, Encouragement, Exercise, Nutrition and Support (T.E.E.N.S) weight management program.

“We hoped to find whether or not the overhydration of fat-free mass (bone, muscle, minerals) returned to normal following the weight management program,” Prince said. “In adults, this overhydration of the fat-free mass typically remains the same following weight change, so a finding that differed in adolescents would be very important.”

Prince measured participants’ overall fitness at the beginning of the program and planned to measure again three months later, but at the three-month mark he noticed something unexpected: Many of the research participants weren’t coming back.

“I definitely felt frustration -- frustration at the situation and frustration that the research wouldn't be completed,” Prince said.

Despite the presumed setback, Herb Hill, director of VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, said Prince was in exactly the right situation.

Ardilla Deneys
Ardilla Deneys, a senior majoring in interior design, is doing research to help inner-city youth contribute to the beauty of their city through garden design projects.

“When we talk about success with a student research project, we’re not talking about whether students got the results they expected or whether they got from point A to point B without any problems,” Hill said. “For a student at the undergraduate level to have an opportunity to engage with challenges and have to adapt as obstacles present themselves is really what these fellowships are all about.”

The VCU UROP hosts dozens of fellowships and provides various undergraduate research resources throughout the year. Prince was one of three students this summer to receive the program’s first-ever undergraduate fellowships for community-engaged and translational research, which were funded by the VCU Division of Community Engagement and the VCU Center for Clinical and Translational Research.

Ardilla Deneys, a senior interior design major and fellowship recipient, worked on a project that empowered youth in the communities surrounding Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood to propose garden design ideas to Mayor Dwight Jones, who planned to redevelop the important historical area.

Deneys’ faculty mentor is Susan Borden-Deren, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

Susan Ghodrat, a senior majoring in nursing, is also one of this year’s recipients. In working with faculty adviser Jo Lynne Robins, Ph.D., assistant professor in the VCU School of Nursing, Ghodrat concentrated on baseline data from a community-based sample of 96 women with increased cardiovascular disease risk.

Ardilla Deneys
Susan Ghodrat, a senior majoring in nursing, found that practices to increase mindfulness such as yoga, tai-chi and deep breathing may help decrease perceived stress, depressive symptoms and fatigue, which may help improve health outcomes in women.

She analyzed the relationship between mindfulness (of one’s own body and health) and several biobehavioral factors including perceived stress, depressive symptoms, fatigue, lifestyle, weight, blood pressure, C-reactive protein, fasting glucose and insulin. She found that practices to increase mindfulness such as yoga, tai-chi and deep breathing may help decrease perceived stress, depressive symptoms and fatigue, which may help improve health outcomes in women.

“In supporting this collaboration of diverse expertise drawn from within the university and from the communities we serve, we’re enabling these young scholars to explore pathways to advancing discoveries into wide-ranging treatments for people in Richmond and beyond,” said John N. Clore, M.D., associate vice president for clinical research at VCU and founding director of the CCTR.

“The community engagement aspect of this fellowship appealed to certain types of students, and you see a lot of these types of students at VCU who are community-engaged and community-minded.” Hill said. “These are the types of students who are going to be doing this type of research for the rest of their lives, you can just tell.”

Before a lifetime of research, though, there are lessons to be learned.

“My initial thoughts about research were: If you planned everything out enough in the beginning, you would encounter no problems along the way,” Prince said. “This was definitely not the case. Some things are just outside of your control.”

And the point is to face the challenges rather than to give up, so with the help of his faculty mentor, Ronald Evans, Ph.D., director of VCU’s Health and Human Performance Lab, Prince is pressing on.

“Because of the roadblocks we’ve encountered, we’ve had to take a step back and look at the data as a whole,” he said. “We are still in the process of changing research direction. It'll be a process over this next semester but I definitely look forward to it as we figure out where to go from here.”