East Meets West: Bridging the sciences gap for better health

Robin Mermelstein

“We start with a compelling problem and we think outside the box,” says Institute for Health Research and Policy director Robin Mermelstein. ­(Photo: Jenny Fontaine)

Heart disease. Cancer. Stroke. Diabetes. Suicide. These health issues are among the leading causes of death in the U.S.

As researchers across the country look to biomedical studies for new drugs and treatments for answers, the UIC Institute for Health Research and Policy (IHRP) promotes a unique, cross-disciplinary approach to reducing death and disability.

“The health problems we face today are complex,” said Robin Mermelstein, director of the Institute for Health Research and Policy. “This complexity results from the multiple causes of chronic diseases that are not only a result of biology but are also frequently a product of behaviors and environments.”

The IHRP spans the entire campus and is UIC’s largest research institute.

The purpose of the IHRP, Mermelstein said, is to look at the root causes of death and disability — smoking, unhealthy diets, excessive alcohol consumption, and lack of physical activity, for example — and study how individuals and communities can achieve better health by encouraging health-promoting behaviors and reducing risky behaviors, and by adopting public policies that reinforce these behaviors.

A third of all deaths in the U.S. can be traced to only two behaviors: tobacco use, and poor diet and exercise habits.

“By examining the behavioral, psychosocial, community policy and socioeconomic influences on health, we are in a position to develop and test methods that may significantly reduce today’s most prevalent health challenges on multiple levels,” Mermelstein said.

Studies at the Institute address issues at the individual level, the community level, and at the public policy level. Currently, there are nearly 50 research projects under way, including studies on e-cigarettes, food availability in low-income households, and tax increases to reduce drinking.

“As we study health through the lens of these various influences, it is vital that experts from a broad array of intersecting fields, such as psychology, economics, computer science, public administration and sociology, lend their unique expertise to research about public health challenges,” Mermelstein said.

“Because we are a campus-wide center, we’ve been able to create an infrastructure that makes collaboration between departments, schools and researchers easier.”

From the development of mobile apps for improving health to congressional recommendations on tax policy and municipal zoning codes for limiting unhealthy behaviors, the research coming out of the IHRP has been recognized for its influence on major scientific societies and government committees.

Research from the IHRP is published in more than 100 publications each year. IHRP researchers include faculty members, senior research scientists, post-doctoral students and graduate students from nine UIC colleges and more than 30 departments on campus.

The research is powerful because it’s collaborative, Mermelstein said.

“We start with a compelling problem and we think outside the box to identify the various areas of expertise that can help us improve care delivery or awareness,” she said. “I think the IHRP is a shining example of UIC’s best attributes: a standard of excellence, an attitude of discovery and focus on transforming lives — especially for underserved and minority populations — through research.”

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