Innovation through collaboration

Father and daughter at dinner

Harvard Catalyst fosters relationships across the University

June 26, 2014 — Fathers tend not to be included in research on how kids are fed at home, despite increasing evidence that men are contributing more time to the daily care of their children. Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) nutrition researcher Kirsten Davison recently launched a project aimed at bridging that gap, starting by finding out what it would take to get more dads involved. Studies at such an early stage can be difficult to fund, so Davison, who is Donald and Sue Pritzker Associate Professor of Nutrition, turned to Harvard Catalyst, a center dedicated to improving human health by enabling research collaboration across the University.

Launched in 2008, Harvard Catalyst provides a range of resources for investigators at all levels, including pilot funding, shared equipment, help with navigating regulations, and access to potential collaborators through an easily searchable online directory. The center is located at Harvard Medical School (HMS), and is funded by the National Institutes of Health and by contributions from Harvard University, its affiliated hospitals, HMS, and HSPH.

“Catalyst is big and ambitious,” said Michelle Williams, Stephen B. Kay Family Professor of Public Health and chair of the Department of Epidemiology at HSPH. “Everyone involved shares a vision of bringing together what we have, what we know, and what we do, into a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.” Williams directs Catalyst’s population health and health disparities research programs.

Davison’s Catalyst pilot grant has already resulted in a surprising finding. Countering the perception that fathers don’t participate in child nutrition studies because of lack of time or distrust of investigators, Davison heard overwhelmingly from dads that they are interested — they just are not being asked.

At a July 22, 2014 “Hot Topics” lecture at HSPH about her research, Davison noted that when she first reached out to fathers through a National Fatherhood Initiative listserv, she got 120 responses from fathers in the first 24 hours. After three months, more than 300 had responded.

When the fathers were asked if they would like to be involved in future research about their children, 90% of them said yes.

Davison noted that in-depth interviews with some of the fathers that were supposed to last no longer than 90 minutes went over two hours because the fathers “really want to talk about their children,” Davison said.

In analyzing data from the fathers, Davison hopes to answer several questions about promoting children’s health, such as whether there are similarities between mothers’ and fathers’ approaches and whether fathers use any unique strategies.

Davison plans to continue working with fathers to develop interventions that are tailored to their needs, and through Catalyst she has had the opportunity to connect with other like-minded researchers. “There’s a real movement going on now of recognizing the role of fathers in children’s lives,” she said.

Researchers are also coming together at events sponsored by Catalyst, such as a symposium last fall on the science of stress and health disparities, which built off a previous event focused on disordered sleep in minority and low income populations. The enthusiastic response to these events has resulted in the development of pilot grants in this research area, as well as a partnership with the Boston Housing Authority (BHA).

Susan Redline, professor in the Department of Epidemiology at HSPH, and colleagues recruited volunteers living in Boston public housing for a pilot study using sleep monitoring and health assessments, and found a high prevalence of short and irregular sleep. For many, poor sleep was triggered by stress, and resulted in high blood pressure the following day. Insufficient sleep is a risk factor for weight gain, which has, in turn, been linked to disordered sleep. Redline hopes to continue working with community groups and peer leaders in public housing to address these significant problems.

Williams is excited by the potential for Catalyst to form partnerships with the community around population research. Another project is underway to assist the Massachusetts Department of Public Health with the implementation of the Prevention Wellness Trust Fund — community-based interventions to stem hypertension and childhood asthma, control tobacco, and prevent falls among the elderly. “This is a great example of leveraging the resources of Harvard to make an impact on improving public health,” she said.

— Amy Roeder