Science and health leaders gain momentum with state-wide push to advance research and discovery

In Arizona, which ranks 43rd in the U.S. for health care access, a new statewide collaboration that brings scientists, clinicians and community partners together to tackle the state’s complex health issues held its annual meeting one year after its launch. Nearly 300 participants from the state’s three universities, health care providers, researchers and bioscience business leaders attended the event at the Desert Willow Conference Center on Sept. 6.

“There’s nothing more valuable than doing work to improve the lives of Arizonans,” said Ron Shoopman, chair of the Arizona Board of Regents. “We have a unique opportunity to collaborate.” Shoopman added that public universities pump $1.2 billion in research dollars into the Arizona economy. “We are focused on doing things to help position the state to a better position for the future,” he said.

With the theme, “research that resonates,” the aim of the Arizona Wellbeing Commons is to strengthen the critical mass of researchers, providers and businesses in the state’s bioscience sector in order to attract more research funding, create new collaborations and ultimately, expedite solutions for some of the state’s most pressing health concerns.

“Here in Arizona, collaboration is a necessity,” said Joshua LaBaer, who is leading the group. LaBaer is executive director of the Biodesign Institute at ASU. He compares Arizona to the states on the East Coast, which are older and already have an established network of resources for research and scientific breakthroughs. Arizona, he said, has a chance to create the network it needs to address issues relating to health care.

Joe Palca, NPR science correspondent and host of “Joe’s Big Idea,” was the keynote speaker for the Arizona Wellbeing Commons meeting. He talked about the importance of bringing scientific research to the public by eliminating jargon and explaining how the research is relevant to the everyday person.

Comprehensive new directory will help create connections

Early input revealed a lack of accessible information that would help researchers, academics and providers identify experts with common interests. Group organizers have created the state’s first directory to provide broad-based access and information to the state’s experts in areas such as mental health, obesity, cancer, neurobiology, infectious disease and public health.

“Information is power,” said project organizer Kimberly Fields. “Knowing that someone at Barrow or Mayo is focused on finding answers to improve detection or treatment of a neurodegenerative disease, for example, while researchers at a state university are doing the same, is vital fuel to begin the conversation – and ultimately, identify new opportunities to collaborate.” Group members can use the database to search for names, organizations or areas of expertise to assist with their research.

Four ‘drivers': Convene, mentor, share resources and build an online presence

The strategy behind the initiative depends heavily on active engagement of the participants. According to LaBaer, the work, direction and impact is dependent on self-defining groups that come together with mutual interests. Groups have held “play dates” to get better acquainted. Some researchers are learning about new resources that will advance their studies, such as the Arizona Biospecimen Consortium and a multitude of technologies that are accessible at the state’s universities and hospitals.

The Arizona Wellbeing Commons consists of six groups, each focusing on a specific area of interest. They include:

  • Neurobiology, aging, dementias and movement disorders
  • Cancer prevention, detection, management and treatment
  • Viruses, immunity, microbiomes and infectious disease
  • Nutrition, obesity, exercise and lifestyle
  • Mental health, substance abuse, crime and behavior change
  • Public health and health care services: law, policy and equity

During the past year, participants in each group have been learning about one another’s work and gaining an understanding of each challenge from multiple perspectives, and working toward developing new collaborations that will lead to solutions. At the conference, each group reviewed year one progress and identified goals for the year ahead.

Grant McFadden, a virologist and a cancer researcher at ASU, and the leader of the unit targeting viruses, immunity, microbiomes and infectious disease unit, said the Arizona Wellbeing Commons is “giving us an opportunity to remind ourselves that we come together for science.”
 

Professionals in Arizona who conduct or use health-related research are encouraged to find out more about participating in the AWC at azwellbeingcommons.org.

News and information about the Arizona Wellbeing Commons and upcoming events can be found at https://azwellbeingcommons.org/. For more information, contact Kimberly Fields at [email protected] or [email protected].