Expanding Cancer Research at UConn

Meg Gerrard, research professor of psychology on March 28, 2013. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Meg Gerrard, research professor of psychology on March 28, 2013. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Meg Gerrard, research professor of psychology on March 28, 2013. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Meg Gerrard, a CHIP affiliate and research professor of psychology, previously worked at Dartmouth’s comprehensive cancer center. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

When asked to describe her new role at UConn’s Center for Health, Intervention, and Prevention (CHIP), renowned health psychologist and new UConn faculty member Meg Gerrard replies succinctly: “To grow more cancer research at CHIP.”

Gerrard’s task, however, involves far more groundwork and outreach than her initial response indicates.

Gerrard has nearly four decades of experience studying adolescent and young adult health behavior. Since arriving at UConn from Dartmouth College in the fall, the new CHIP affiliate and research professor in UConn’s psychology department has worked diligently with research scientist Alicia Dugan, ‘boundary spanner’ for CHIP, to become more familiar with the cancer research scene in Connecticut. She has also met with Dr. Frank Torti, executive vice president for health affairs and dean of the medical school, as well as many other cancer researchers at the Health Center and at Storrs.

And in an effort to foster multidisciplinary research collaborations, she launched a new Cancer Research Interest Group at CHIP. More than a dozen researchers from almost as many disciplines attended the first two meetings and shared their cancer research interests with one another, with many other UConn cancer researchers expressing an interest in joining the group.

The group will hold a CHIP/UConn Health Center cancer research mini-retreat on Monday, April 22, from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Angelico’s Lake House, a restaurant in East Hampton.

“The mini-retreat will facilitate introductions and the exploration of common interests among cancer researchers on the Storrs and Health Center campuses,” Gerrard says. “The day is designed to spark new collaborations and to begin planning for the future submission of significant, external, multidisciplinary grant proposals.”

The keynote speaker for the event is Rebecca Ferrer, a health scientist and program director with the National Cancer Institute’s basic biobehavioral and psychological sciences branch of its Behavioral Research Program. A graduate of UConn’s psychology doctoral program who was mentored by CHIP researchers, Ferrer will discuss “Scientific Priorities and Upcoming FOAs at the National Cancer Institute.”

The mini-retreat also will include small group discussions around research interest areas and cross-cutting themes in cancer research.

Working with new populations

This “beginning of a network” has jumpstarted a process that will be continued and formalized in the coming months – the sharing of information not only about the cancer research currently being conducted and the possibilities for new multidisciplinary cancer research, but also about the collaborators and community organizations across the state that might serve as resources for CHIP affiliates in search of research sites and participants.

“Sometimes it can be very hard to gain entry into high-risk populations,” Gerrard says, “and the Cancer Research Interest Group is one way to help to facilitate that entry.”

Through the Cancer Research Interest Group meetings, Gerrard and others met UConn cancer researchers who are already active in Hartford’s African American community. They also were introduced to Markos Samos, with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, whose interest in increasing cancer control research on Native Americans in New England led to Gerrard recently securing one of UConn’s large faculty grants.

The new grant will expand the federally funded cancer prevention research she has been conducting with African American populations to Native Americans in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. With the assistance of Samos, she has gained entry into these communities, where she will conduct pilot work to better understand the barriers to and predictors of HPV vaccination among Native American populations. Gerrard says her research is intended to ultimately lead to the development of interventions for both African American and Native American populations.

Extending the range of expertise

To all of her efforts, Gerrard brings the perspective she gained most recently during four years as co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at Dartmouth’s Norris Cotton Comprehensive Cancer Center. The Dartmouth center is one of approximately three dozen comprehensive cancer centers nationwide that focus on cancer treatment, cancer prevention in the community, and research on all different types of cancers.

At CHIP, Gerrard, her husband and research collaborator psychology professor Rick Gibbons, and communication sciences professor Leslie Snyder focus on cancer prevention research. Other CHIP-affiliated researchers – including psychology professors Crystal Park and Blair T. Johnson, human development and family studies professors Tom Blank and Keith Bellizzi, and kinesiology professor Linda Pescatello – are conducting research on cancer survivorship issues.

Gerrard’s vision is to expand CHIP’s team of cancer researchers to mirror the range of expertise found at comprehensive cancer centers by recruiting highly-regarded faculty in additional areas of cancer control research, such as screening, psycho-social predictors of cancer, and treatment decision-making.

In addition to organizing the CHIP/UConn Health Center cancer research mini-retreat, Gerrard is working with Lori Bastian, a professor at the School of Medicine who specializes in women’s cancers and also recently joined the faculty, to foster additional cancer research collaborations between campuses.

“It is an advantage that we are both starting at UConn at the same time and are both looking to build new cancer research programs,” Gerrard says.

She notes that she and Bastian hope to encourage increased collaborations across the two campuses by securing pilot funding specifically for teams comprising cancer researchers from both campuses. This idea is modeled after the very successful pilot funding competition that was jointly sponsored last year by CHIP and Yale University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS to foster increased collaboration among HIV/AIDS researchers from both institutions.

Deborah Cornman, associate director of CHIP, says CHIP and UConn are fortunate to have Gerrard spearheading the efforts to expand the cancer research program here.

“Dr. Gerrard is a remarkably talented and well-respected researcher with years of experience in the area of cancer prevention and control,” says Cornman. “She brings a fresh perspective and new ideas that will no doubt be beneficial to CHIP, to UConn, and to the field of cancer research.”

To attend the CHIP/UConn Health Center cancer research mini-retreat, join the Cancer Research Interest Group, and/or learn more about Gerrard’s efforts to facilitate further cancer research at CHIP, please contact her at meg.gerrard@uconn.edu. To RSVP for the mini-retreat, please respond by Friday, April 18.