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Hearts and minds.

Even while pursuing a degree in social work at Jackson State University, Pamela Smith is educating the public about the risk factors, preventative measures, and treatment of cardiovascular disease as part of the school's participation in a community research project called the Jackson Heart Study.

The massive study is the largest investigation of heart disease to be undertaken in a completely African-American population. The single-site study in the Jackson metropolitan area is assessing the numerous threats that affect cardiovascular health, including lifestyle habits, cultural factors, genetics, and physical condition. Under the direction of principal investigator Herman Taylor, Jr. of JSU, study researchers also aim to determine the racial disparities left irresolute by previous cardiovascular studies. With funding recently extended to 2013, the researchers hope their findings will eventually point the way to better treatment for African-Americans with heart disease.

Smith works with the segment of the study's Coordinating Center, run by JSU, that is responsible for advocating health education and community involvement. Known as the Community Outreach Unit, the division aims to increase awareness of the heart study's goals and objectives among the African-American population.

"The Community Outreach Unit acts as a liaison between the community and the Jackson Heart Study," Smith says. "I go to different health fairs organized by the unit and talk to people about cardiovascular disease. We also have health educators from the office who recruit and train people to be health leaders ... to spread the message about the Jackson Heart Study and cardiovascular health in their communities."

Coordinating Center director Daniel Sarpong says the health education and promotional efforts organized by the Community Outreach Unit have helped to make the Jackson Heart Study a household name. "That is one of the most unique components of the study," Sarpong says. "We wanted that community involvement."

Alongside its community efforts, JSU's Coordinating Center is also responsible for managing and analyzing the vast volume of data collected. With facilities housed at the Jackson Medical Mall, center participants work with the study's two other local partners, Tougaloo College and the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMC), to complete the study's research aims. UMC runs the study's Examination Center and completes the recruitment, screening, and surveillance of participants. Tougaloo College offers courses in public health and epidemiology to students and health professionals through its Jackson Heart Study Undergraduate Training Center. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities are sponsoring the study.

Smith says housing data management and community education together at JSU's Coordinating Center has been beneficial to her advocacy efforts. "By seeing the raw data, I can see what the main concerns and daily practices of people are and better target my conversations," she says. "My participation in encoding the data has helped me to be better informed when I go out and talk to people about the Jackson Heart Study and its significance to cardiovascular disease."

JSU's role in the Jackson Heart Study has also provided a number of opportunities for students at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate levels to get involved. Many students studying public health use the Coordinating Center to complete their research projects or practice residencies, and students conducting health research often present their work to Jackson Heart Study staff members.

Smith says her involvement with the Community Outreach Unit has allowed her to see the intersection of social work and health issues. "The staff really acts as mentors to the students who come through," she says. "They get involved, and whatever research you're involved in, someone in the JSU family is there to guide you."

For more information, visit the Jackson Heart Study's website at
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Author:Voelkel, Megan
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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