Dog whisperers, pet owners, neuroscientists, psychologists, veterinarians and people who work with therapy animals.
They’re all members of a newly formed research exchange group, facilitated by Memorial’s Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Applied Health Research (NLCAHR), dedicated to learning how the bonds between people and animals affect the health and well-being of both.
Danielle Hogan, a clinical occupational therapist with Eastern Health, will be among them, as will Erin Gallant, a peer support counsellor and owner of Stable Life, an equine-assisted therapy program for adults with mental health and addictions issues.
“I joined up to learn about the research that can inform my practice, and, hopefully, to participate in studies at the local level,” Ms. Hogan said.
Ms. Gallant agrees.
“We have seen how clients build relationships with the horses and how this opens them up to making changes for their recovery. It will be great to connect with people doing similar work to find out how and why this happens.”
The group is convened by Dr. Gail Wideman, associate professor, School of Social Work, and Dr. Carolyn Walsh, associate professor, Canine Research Unit, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Science.
“By hosting groups like this one, NLCAHR encourages collaboration across all sectors, at all stages,” Dr. Wideman said.
“In my view, as a researcher and community developer, the work of NLCAHR toward creating a research-ready university has been invaluable.”
Participants in the process
All of NLCAHR’s research exchange groups are organized around the idea that, when it comes to our health, academics are not the only experts.
Welcoming people with lived experience along with health and community partners, the groups foster research that respects the diverse expertise that non-academics bring to the table.
More than 1,100 members of these groups are now exploring 19 topics — including aging, autism, harm reduction, global health, palliative care and more.
Group members discuss research, build collaborative teams, organize workshops and promote the use of evidence in health and community settings.
Community members are integrated into the collaboration as the generators of research ideas, as leaders and catalysts for projects and as participants in the research process. It’s a reflection of the principle “nothing about us without us” – a call for research and policy-making that includes the people who are directly affected.
Open to all and free to attend, the groups ask that members bring only their own curiousity (and a bagged lunch).
Several years ago, Elayne Greeley, partnership broker at the Community Employment Collaboration, joined the research exchange group on arts and health to discover how creativity affects well-being.
She also wanted to build research and innovation capacity among the community organizations she works with every day.
“Innovation always starts with a conversation.”
Inspired by the perspectives shared at the meetings, Ms. Greeley and Dr. Jill Allison, global health co-ordinator in the Faculty of Medicine, started a group devoted to service learning/community engagement to foster respectful engagement and community-responsive learning and research opportunities.
“Complicated problems require more than traditional academic expertise if we hope to get workable solutions – they require all actors within a system to be centered within the solution, including folks with lived experience,” said Ms. Greeley.
“The magic of the research exchange groups is the way they bring a range of people together to explore shared agendas, building bridges for community partners to connect with the university. Innovation always starts with a conversation.”
Conversations among her fellow group members became the impetus for Ms. Greeley’s own research practice — she is now engaged in three research teams: two national community-based research projects and a provincial workforce innovation project.
Sharing knowledge and strength
Plenty of community organizations contribute to the program, too, by sharing their research and identifying community strengths.
Notable among them is Stella’s Circle, a local agency that has presented at meetings about the Stella’s Circle Inclusion Choir, the organization’s role in the Lullaby Project, its housing programs and the Bonaventure Community Garden.
Stella’s Circle has also partnered with researchers from the mental health research exchange group to learn how to best support seniors with complex needs. Last year, Lisa Browne, CEO of Stella’s Circle, presented on the many community programs that that organization offers to improve the social determinants of health.
“These research exchange groups provide a great opportunity for the community to share its work and for researchers to share theirs,” Ms. Browne said. “More than that, they offer a chance for collaborations and connections that would not exist otherwise.”