Monday, December 10, 2012

The University of Iowa served as Kirsten Beyer’s launching pad into the world of community engagement.

At first, she picked up pointers from books. Then, community engagement became a passion through her participation as a graduate fellow in the Obermann Center’s Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy.

“The Institute infused me with energy when it comes to community engagement,” says Beyer, a 2008 Obermann Graduate Fellow. “I had already planned on doing some participatory research, but the institute really helped me to frame my proposal.”

Beyer, assistant professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin in the Institute for Health and Society, returned to Iowa City March 29, 2012 to talk about her positive experiences in the Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy.

“A big part of the institute is bringing people—who are speaking completely different languages disciplinary-wise—together to speak to the same important point,” Beyer says. “It’s community engagement from a lot of different perspectives.”

Beyer’s Obermann Center project focused on the geography of health, specifically cancer maps illustrating late-stage colorectal cancer diagnosis. To hear community members’ perspectives on their life situations, Beyer traveled to Storm Lake—a town of 10,600 in northwest Iowa—where higher rates of colorectal cancer late-stage diagnosis had been reported in cancer maps.

Concerned with these high rates, a partnership was formed in fall 2008 between the Iowa Consortium for Comprehensive Cancer Control, the Storm Lake Area Cancer Task Force, and Beyer, then a researcher in the UI’s Geography Department.

Sixty Storm Lake residents provided 161 statements indicating reasons Storm Lake may suffer a higher burden of colorectal cancer than other places. Environmental contamination, a lack of screening by doctors, unhealthful eating, and a toxic economic/work environment were some of the main reasons cited by the citizens.

“A number of themes came up, but a big one was water quality,” Beyer says. “If there’s a water quality problem, that’s interesting and something to be dealt with. If there isn’t a water quality problem, the belief that there is a water quality problem is distracting people from thinking there are things they can do to reduce their risk. Either way, there’s something there.”

Report recommendations included starting a community discussion on the environmental consequences of local industries and occupations, and initiating awareness campaigns that focus on colorectal cancer screening, and the importance of being screened even when no symptoms are present.

Beyer earned her doctorate in geography and her master of public health in global health at the UI in 2009. A health geographer interested in human-environment interaction, Beyer moved to Milwaukee, Wis., after graduation to take a position at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

She was drawn to the Medical College of Wisconsin after learning about its commitment to community engagement.

“My current position is in the Institute for Health and Society and community engagement is part of its mission,” Beyer says. “It’s like coming home to go to a place that values community engagement so much that it puts it in the logo.”