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DU and National Jewish Health Grow Partnership Through Microgrants

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Alyssa Hurst

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Doctor giving covid vaccine to patient

In early 2020, Eileen Wang, an allergist and immunologist at National Jewish Health, reached out to Anne DePrince, a University of Denver psychology professor with expertise in intimate partner violence.

The pair became interested in exploring the links between this type of violence, traumatic brain injuries and asthma. Though the conversations were fruitful and fascinating, they were just that. Conversations

Once the pandemic hit though, a new relationship began to blossom. In July 2020, National Jewish became DU’s strategic health partner, helping to organize COVID testing on campus and later, vaccination events. Now this partnership has created a new opportunity, supporting cross-disciplinary research between the two.

After holding a lightning talks event, DU and National Jewish opened applications for seed-funding grants to support partnerships between researchers at both institutions. The $7,000 to $10,000 grants went to five projects, including the one proposed by Wang and DePrince.

Corinne Lengsfeld, DU’s vice provost for research, spearheaded the effort with Greg Downey, executive vice president for academic affairs at National Jewish, and many others at both organizations. The goal, she says, is to continue offering small grants to build an organic partnership that will outlast the pandemic.

“In January, we’ll put out another RFP to fund other groups so this twice-a-year cycle can keep going for a little bit and really deepen the relationship beyond COVID,” Lengsfeld says. “What’s most important is that the relationships are built from the bottom up — that we just incentivize people and these groups, and the ideas are all self-driven. … It’s so fun to watch. I’m just really excited.”

Though the grants are small, Lengsfeld says, they will kickstart early research so projects can secure external funding down the road. That’s exactly how DePrince and Wang have put their grant to work. 

“Without funding, all we were able to really think about was whether we could at least try to demonstrate what percentage of women who come in for asthma treatment have a history of intimate partner violence, or a history of TBI or a history of both,” DePrince says. “That was as big as we could dream without funding. With funding, this allows us to actually test and look at some biomarkers in a relatively small sample.”

DePrince says this grant has been critical. The researchers will use pilot data from their early research as a proof of concept that will shape applications for larger grants. The results of this small-sample research also will help Wang and DePrince fine-tune their theories before undertaking more robust research.

Ultimately, DePrince sees this microgrant as the beginning of a fruitful partnership that melds disciplines in the name of crucial science for the public good. DePrince brings to the team years of expertise and research on intimate partner violence and an understanding of the nuances attached to these phenomena. Wang will build on her work at National Jewish to recruit participants to the study, which aims to better understand this issue from multiple angles.

“My research wheelhouse hasn't included the kind of biomarkers and medical considerations for which Dr. Wang is an expert,” DePrince says. “Having this clear partnership with a medical institution is a real win, allowing me and my team to ask a broader set of questions, and it provides new training opportunities for the graduate students working with me.”

The microgrants also will affect graduate students in other ways, says Jing Li, a professor in DU’s College of Natural Sciences in Mathematics whose work focuses on geospatial data science. The grant she’s received will pay for the work of two graduate students assisting with her project, “Using data-driven, AI techniques to model exposure risks to ambient air pollution at localized scales in the Denver metro area.” Her team will conduct this research with Jim Crooks of National Jewish, whose research focuses on biostatics and bioinformatics.

The project employs Li’s expertise to bring air-quality data from multiple sources into one easily accessible interface. This will provide detailed, real-time information for patients living in the Denver area. The pair also plan to layer in a journaling component, allowing patients to input their activities. Patients will get personalized information about exposure risks with this data, combined with Crooks’ knowledge and experience in the health implications of different types of exposure to poor air quality.

This partnership, Li says, has allowed her to fully realize the University’s commitment to the public good in her own work.

“Due to the pandemic [I realized] geospatial data scientists can do more,” Li says. “A lot of people from National Jewish Health are doing the most important part of this work, but we still can contribute to the public good by delivering this kind of model to promote public messaging, so more people can understand the health issue. So, I feel like this project gave me a chance to explore the application of big data that can serve a large population.”

That’s exactly what Lengsfeld envisioned these microgrants would accomplish – moving the partnership forward to continue positively affect the community, as it has over the past year.


Join the latest round of DU+NJH Lightning Talks from 2-4 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 12 at