Noelle Pooler.

A study in unpredictability: VCU senior learns that when it comes to public health research, planning is only part of the process

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As part of Research Weeks (April 6–27) we are highlighting the work of six undergraduates whose work was made possible by VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Global Education Office, Division for Inclusive Excellence and guidance from faculty members.

Research Weeks takes place on both campuses and features a wide variety of projects in multiple disciplines.

See more stories by clicking on links in the “Related stories” section or learn more about the lineup of events for this year’s Research Weeks.

In her office at the 500 Academic Centre building on Virginia Commonwealth University’s Monroe Park Campus, Joann Richardson, Ph.D., has a framed thank you letter from a Jamaican woman who participated in a health study led by a VCU student.

“Thank you for choosing me to participate in the study,” the letter says. “I have learned so much about my health and now am educating my family from what I have learned from the survey. I have impacted other lives from it because they are eating properly, exercising and taking better care of themselves.”

Richardson, an associate professor in VCU’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences, served as the faculty adviser for an Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship study that started in 2016. Last year, physical education and exercise science senior Noelle Pooler picked up where the original study left off. The purpose of the study was influencing attitudes and behaviors toward health, with an ultimate goal of preventing and controlling the development of hypertension and diabetes among rural, medically underserved Jamaican women of childbearing age.

Noncommunicable diseases are the leading cause of death globally, according to the World Health Organization. Jamaica’s Ministry of Health indicates that the diseases, which include hypertension and diabetes, account for about 60 percent of deaths among men and 75 percent of deaths among women. Pooler’s research focused on the fact that hypertension and diabetes can be reduced with educational interventions that change lifestyle risk factors. In her research proposal, she hypothesized that informing people about the seriousness, risks and preventive measures to control hypertension and diabetes could help their society and communities function optimally.

“The study was focused on empowering people through knowledge so that they can improve their health,” Pooler said.

Pooler traveled to Jamaica last summer to conduct the first phase of research. Prior to starting the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program study, she had not conducted research independently.

“I was really overwhelmed at first,” she said.

Before traveling to Jamaica, the New Jersey native researched Jamaican culture and government to prepare for identifying with and relating to the study participants. “I wanted to be culturally competent when I arrived,” she said.

In Jamaica, she recruited 15 women to participate in the study. The women, who ranged in age from 15 to 44 years old, first completed a survey that quantified their knowledge about hypertension and diabetes. They then participated in an informational session — led by Pooler — about the effect of exercise and nutrition on development of the diseases. “Being able to empower someone with knowledge that way was very humbling,” Pooler said. The women were later asked to complete surveys that assessed the effectiveness of the informational session.

The second and third phases of the study involved collecting post-session surveys in the months following the information session, but Pooler ran into obstacles in completing those phases.

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“The personality and nature of the Jamaican women is that they do better in a personal environment,” Richardson said. “Trying to do a study long distance just didn’t work for them.”

Though Pooler was not able to complete the study, she said she still learned a lot from participating.

“Dr. Richardson warned me in advance that the nature of public health research is that it is unpredictable,” Pooler said. “You have to be prepared to roll with the punches.”

While she does not foresee a future career in public health research, Pooler was grateful for the opportunity to learn more about the research experience and be immersed in a culture unfamiliar to her.

“Doing this research solidified the fact that I like working with people and want to work with a diverse population,” Pooler said. “It is important to have a diverse array of knowledge and experiences working with different types of people from different cultures."