SPOTLIGHT | June 16, 2021

Citizen Science

At the beginning of the pandemic, six in 10 patients suffering from symptoms of COVID-19 at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center, came from neighboring Hispanic/Latino communities.

In an effort to change these statistics, medical researchers partnered with community residents living nearby – including Santa Ana, which is located in Orange County. They shared information about COVID-19, explained clinical trials that provided treatment, and most recently, delivered vaccines.

“Building trust within the community has been the cornerstone of our efforts,” said Frank Zaldivar, Ph.D., director of community education at the Pediatric Exercise Genomics Research Center at UCI Health.

Zaldivar also engages special populations as part of the faculty at UCI’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Science. And he co-leads the CEAL research team in California, which is spread throughout the state. A common thread among CEAL researchers working with Hispanic/Latino residents is their understanding of the importance of promotoras, community health promoters. Recruiting them to share COVID-19 resources and information with the community, they said, is vital.

In Madison Park, a Santa Ana neighborhood with large numbers of Spanish-speaking residents – half of whom were born in other countries – this work includes sharing updates about vaccine pods and expert-led town hall events. Before a recent town hall event in May, half of attendees weren’t sure if vaccines were safe for teens. After Erlinda Ulloa, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease specialist at UCI Health gave a presentation in Spanish, three-fourths of families left feeling confident about their children getting vaccinated.

“Since community-engaged research begins with relationships rather than research, community outreach and establishing trust is the first step – and providing services and information that the community asks for opens the door.”

The UCI Health team hosted nine community events in Spanish this past year – all at the request of residents. Three are scheduled for June and July.

Yet, while this COVID-19 information is new, these partnerships date back 20 years. Community-based organizations like Madison Park Neighborhood Association – Getting Residents Engaged in Exercise and Nutrition (MPNA Green), have been essential to this work. Zaldivar and Jose Rea, the executor director of MPNA Green, co-lead CEAL efforts in Madison.

“Since community-engaged research begins with relationships rather than research,” Zaldivar said, “community outreach and establishing trust is the first step – and providing services and information that the community asks for opens the door.”

The forums have also enabled scientists to share news with residents about other types of research. A current study will assess how local air quality affects the lungs of residents and may impact COVID-19 lung infections. UCI researchers invited those interested in this topic to help them design the study and collect air samples. An accompanying asthma pilot project will assess how air quality affects children living in or attending schools near industrial areas.

UCI has also developed a social determinants of health curriculum – which the community participates in and is a part of. It focuses on youth STEM education and mentorship, family health and wellness, and a safe and clean environment.

Faculty members at the University of California, Irvine, provide mentoring for postdoctoral researchers and medical students, who work with undergraduate students in the program. College students then explain science and research to students in grades 4-12. And while the purpose of this model is to strengthen access to higher education, it also makes it easier for scientists, physicians, and the community to quickly come together during a crisis, like COVID-19.

The secret, Zaldivar explains, is that “community-engaged research is an extension of community partnerships.”

Learn about similar community-engaged research and outreach taking place in Central California and Michigan.