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Yale School of Public Health establishes research, education partnership with American Samoa Community College

June 28, 2023
by Amelia Lower

The American Samoa Community College (ASCC) and Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) have signed a memorandum of understanding creating an official partnership.

As part of the agreement, YSPH will provide internship opportunities for ASCC students, collaborate on the development of a new institutional review board (IRB) at the college, and help with efforts to archive research.

“ASCC values this partnership with YSPH not only for facilitating educational opportunities in health care research for ASCC students but for also providing resources through training and workshops towards meeting ASCC’s institutional goals of establishing an IRB and creating a research archive at the college,” said ASCC President Dr. Rosevonne Makaiwi-Pato.

YSPH has had an active presence in American Samoa for almost 10 years. Nicola Hawley, associate professor of epidemiology (chronic diseases), and Becca Levy, professor of public health (social and behavioral sciences) and psychology, have each secured funding from the National Institutes of Health to conduct research in the region. The memorandum solidifies Yale’s commitment to creating capacity-building opportunities for faculty and students at the ASCC.

Hawley is currently conducting research and overseeing several community programs aimed at reducing obesity and improving health in American Samoa. She has worked in both the independent nation of Samoa and American Samoa for over a decade, starting her work there in 2009.

“American Samoa is an incredibly underserved medical professional shortage area with an absurd burden of chronic disease… in that scenario, public health carries a different weight,” Hawley said. “It is really important that public health is able to support that lacking clinical infrastructure.”

During her time in American Samoa, Hawley has served as a mentor for ASCC’s STEP-UP program, an NIH-funded initiative that stands for Short-term Research Experience for Underrepresented Persons; that program was how she met Mata’u Faiai, now a PhD student in Chronic Disease Epidemiology at YSPH. She is also currently leading a diabetes intervention project there.

I look forward to strengthening our ties and supporting the many talented members of the ASCC community to achieve their academic and research goals.

Professor Becca Levy

Levy, who has a doctorate in social psychology and focuses on psychosocial epidemiology, is investigating how different public health concerns impact people across their lifespans in an attempt to find innovative ways to improve long-term community health.

“Pacific Islander health is so important,” Levy said. “Strengthening it is a really meaningful goal.”

Hawley and Levy said they enjoyed meeting with ASCC President Dr. Makaiwi-Pato, her Vice President of Administration and Finance Sonny Leomiti, and her Vice President of Academic, Community, and Student Affairs Letupu Moananu over Zoom during the pandemic to discuss formalizing a partnership.

“The ASCC executive leadership genuinely appreciated the Zoom meetings with Dr. Levy and Dr. Hawley that culminated in the approved memorandum of understanding with YSPH,” said Moananu. “The ASCC executive leadership is committed to taking the lead to ensure the college uses this opportunity to promote its health care programs and research activities, and also in establishing our own IRB and research archive.”

As part of its educational mission, the ASCC trains future public health professionals, health management professionals, nutritionists, nurses, and other members of the region’s health care workforce.

The new partnership is intended to strengthen ASCC student education and training so that ASCC students can go on to further their education or pursue professional careers.

“I look forward to strengthening our ties and supporting the many talented members of the ASCC community to achieve their academic and research goals.” Levy said.

Hawley and Levy said they are excited to engage more with ASCC students through guest lectures, workshops, and mentorship opportunities. They also look forward to collaborating with the ASCC on its establishment of a formal institutional review board that will monitor and regulate research in the territory, and on the creation of a research archive that would house some of the many important projects the ASCC faculty, staff, and students have conducted in the past and are currently conducting.

“Being able to spend time with them, really talking about what public health is and what role they can play, I think is an important part of just building general health system capacity,” Hawley said.

ASCC administrators, staff, faculty, and students had the opportunity to meet Dr. Levy and Dr. Hawley during their visit to ASCC. Stakeholders participated in two different workshops hosted by the YSPH. Additional dialogue and meetings with local agencies have occurred following the workshops.

“It will be a great achievement for ASCC to house an IRB as a resource to assist with the review, monitoring, and regulating of future research in the territory,” said Moananu.

The YSPH team also met with the ASCC Health Sciences and Nursing Department to promote opportunities for the next generation of students pursuing credentials in health care research beyond ASCC.

“The ASCC administration is proud that some of our graduates have returned home to work as health researchers, which contributes towards the improved health of our people,” said Moananu.

During the YSPH team’s visit with a class of ASCC students interested in the health sciences, two graduates of the college who are now involved in public health research spoke to the class.

One of the graduates, Joshua Naseri, grew up in both American Samoa and the Independent State of Samoa. He graduated in 2016 from ASCC, where he completed his Associate of Science degree majoring in health sciences.

“He was the person that students wanted to see in that room…,” Hawley said. “For the students in this most recent talk that we did, they got to see what a career in public health looks like, through him.”

Naseri received a platinum scholarship to attend North Park University Chicago where he completed his Bachelor of Health Science degree in 2019. After returning home to American Samoa and serving in the American Samoa Department of Health for nearly three years, he now is a program manager for the OLAGA Research Center established by Hawley.

“I consider myself to be very fortunate to be able to bring together local professionals and Yale colleagues in an effort to build local capacity and capabilities for research,” Naseri said. “This partnership has the potential to do so much more than just public health research. It creates opportunities to upskill and train our local people in research.”

The Obesity, Lifestyle, And Genetic Adaptations (OLAGA; “life” in Samoan) Study Group uses a life course approach to understand the origins of obesity among Samoans and other Pacific Islanders and focuses on developing culturally relevant interventions to reduce the burden of obesity and obesity-related conditions.

In Samoa, 58.4% of adult women and 43.8% of adult men are living with obesity, and nearly a third of the adult population is affected by diabetes, according to the Global Nutrition Report. A life course approach to understanding the origins of obesity among Samoans and other Pacific Islanders could ultimately produce culturally relevant interventions to reduce the burden of obesity and obesity-related conditions.

“I find that a huge part of my role is providing the local perspective as we engage in discussion of research and how to go about conducting it locally,” Naseri said. “There is this huge responsibility of protecting the interest and rights of the local community so that we are not exploited in these efforts. Building and maintaining the trust of the people is essential to the work.”

Submitted by Colin Poitras on June 28, 2023