Research Advocacy at the University of Illinois

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I definitely enjoyed being back on campus at the University of Illinois, seeing all the familiar sites and eating Papa Del’s pizza, reliving my glory days! But of course, that wasn’t the reason for the trip. Zeynep and Erik Nelson are undertaking the task of starting a research advocacy group as part of the Cancer Community @ Illinois, and I was thrilled not only with their enthusiasm, but with the support they are getting from director of the Cancer Community, Rohit Bhargava.  It was a pleasure to spend time with them, learning about their hopes for the new Cancer Community that will be a part of the new medical school on the UIUC campus.

imageThey had a full trip planned for me, starting with an informal graduate student and post doc seminar where I talked a little about myself and what I do as a research advocate. Mostly, though, they asked questions. Most of them weren’t familiar with the concept of research advocacy,  and so they had lots of questions about how they could incorporate the perspective a research advocate into their projects.

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Probably the best exercise for me was the talk that I gave after lunch to a group of faculty. When Zeynep said that she’d like me to give a 40-45 minute talk, I initially panicked, not sure what I would have to say to fill that much time! Yet I took a deep breath, did my wonderwoman pose, and started planning a talk. I figured once I had it planned, I could bulk it up to fill the time. And yet, when I was done, I found that it was actually a few minutes too long! So I made it a little more concise and smooth and finished it in 42 minutes– perfect.  Part of what made me a little apprehensive, though, was not so much the length– I can always find something to talk about! I’ve given a lot of thought to what a research advocate should do and why an investigator should include them as part of the team, but planning this talk forced me to really organize my thoughts into a concise delivery. Before I had even realized it, I had a polished presentation explaining what a research advocate does, what we don’t do (just as important!), where to find a research advocate, and how to work together as part of a mutually beneficial team. I also got to spend time with some of the key stakeholders in what will become the new Cancer Research Advocacy Group, and sat in on a graduate level class. Zeynep asked her students to explain their research in a way that would be understandable to an advocate– training that few scientists ever receive! They did great, and I enjoyed the discussions that resulted after their presentations.

It was such a fun trip on so many levels. But most of all, it was such a privilege to be involved in the earliest stages of the formation of a group that I think will be such an asset to the research community in a place that is so near and dear to my heart. I can’t wait to see what kinds of ideas will result from the collaboration of biologists, research advocates, and the brilliant engineering minds for which the University of Illinois is known.

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