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11/20/2020 - Jackson, Miss.

The global coronavirus pandemic has put health and wellness and the forefront of discussions from households to the statehouse. Mississippi Public Universities are working hard to address both COVID-19 and other factors that impact the well-being of Mississippians through research efforts, programs and other initiatives.

The University of Mississippi Medical Center will use two federal grants totaling $2.6 million for community research on COVID-19. The Community Engagement Alliance Against COVID-19 Disparities project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, makes possible rapid community research on engagement, trust and communication to help produce culturally specific messaging related to COVID-19. The project also aims to promote and increase racial and ethnic diversity in COVID-19 clinical trials. The second project, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will address epidemiological and clinical questions about COVID-19 using a multi-site study of patients and health care workers in health systems. The study will estimate COVID-19 prevalence and incidence by geography, age, race and other demographic measures, as well as clinical consequences.

Housed at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), the Mississippi IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) is a network of colleges and universities designed to build a biomedical research infrastructure throughout Mississippi. The mission of Mississippi INBRE is to improve the health of underserved communities in the state and to engage talented researchers and students in biomedical research projects to increase the state's research competitiveness and to positively impact the health of its citizens. Mississippi INBRE focuses on cancer, diabetes, obesity, infectious diseases and other health disparities directly affecting Mississippians.

Alcorn State University is working hard to combat the prevalence of childhood obesity in Southwest Mississippi. Dr. Martha Ravola, associate professor and interim chair in the Department of Human Sciences, along with her team of investigators, has embarked on a new research project entitled "Connections that Count: Multidisciplinary Approach to Childhood Obesity." Through this three year, Evans-Allen funded project, Ravola and her colleagues plan to use sustained research efforts to investigate the social, behavioral, psychological and genetic determinants of childhood obesity, while also developing a mathematical model to calculate health expenditures for families with obese children in the Adams, Jefferson and Claiborne counties.

Delta State University fills the critical need for nurses by offering the only Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Master of Science in Nursing, Post-Master's Certification and Doctor of Nursing Practice degree programs in the Mississippi Delta. The DSU Robert E. Smith School of Nursing's offerings regularly rank high for quality, affordability, and efficiency. The School of Nursing was again ranked third for best online RN to BSN Programs in Mississippi. The master's program has been recognized as one of the 10 most affordable online master's degree programs in the nation. In addition, DSU's Doctor of Nursing Practice/Family Nurse Practitioner online program placed fifth in the U.S. for affordability and was listed among the 12 shortest to complete. All of Delta State's nursing programs are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education.

Health disparities led Jackson State University to establish a School of Public Health and College of Health Sciences to support underserved populations. Moreover, JSU is using a $400,000 collaborative grant from the CDC to target African Americans ages 18-29 with health disparities in Hinds, Madison and Rankin counties. JSU's Mississippi Urban Research Center has hosted forums aimed at improving Mississippi's health system to mitigate high mortality rates from diabetes, strokes and heart disease. JSU and the National Science Foundation are helping underserved communities with storm preparedness, providing mental therapy for weather-related trauma and inspiring minority women to pursue STEM careers. Additionally, the HBCU has worked with U.S. lawmakers and the Federal Communications Commission to expand rural access to broadband technology and apprenticeships.

A curiosity for science in high school led Mississippi State University faculty member LaShan Simpson to her investigation of—and fixation on—cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in Mississippi. Today, the bioengineering associate professor's passion has led to a patent-pending, living tissue 3-D model of a vascular artery that can provide cellular-level perspective in studying how to treat heart disease. Her innovations will help scientists improve knowledge of disease processes, cell response to mechanical and chemical stimuli, and potential treatments. While continuing to study the medical implications of the disease that's accountable for over a third of all deaths in the state, she also teaches her students it is necessary to consider socioeconomic factors such as income, geographic location and ethnicity in working to help the most people.

The Mississippi State University Extension Service addresses overall health and wellness needs of Mississippians and offers a wealth of research-based information on COVID-19. Extension's COVID-information webpages have relevant public health information for residents, producers, businesses, organizations, and communities. Available on Extension's Coronavirus Videos webpage, the Conversations about Coronavirus social video series garnered more than 87,000 views. During the pandemic, Extension agents have organized and participated in many food delivery initiatives and have assisted in distributing approximately 70,000 boxes of food to about 280,000 people. Extension continues prepping the next generation healthcare professionals in the Rural Medical and Science Scholars program, a summer program for rising high school seniors interested in healthcare careers. Altogether, 100 percent of 2020 participants plan to go to college. Other popular health and fitness programs, including Dining with Diabetes and Walk-a-Weigh, are now available online.

Mississippi Valley State University is doing its part to bring awareness and solutions to food insecurity in the Mississippi Delta. Dr. Cassandra Hawkins, assistant professor of Rural Public Policy and Planning, has researched the topic, "Understanding Food Systems in Mississippi: An Examination of the Prevalence of Food Insecurity." Her research explores how food insecurity impacts Mississippi's food systems and provides strategies to reduce its prevalence. Concluding that the state's food systems need to be transformed for the disparity among families based on specific sociodemographic factors, the study builds the capacity to research food insecurity and these significant challenges to communities in the Mississippi Delta. Additionally, her research has been presented to Mississippi Social Workers to highlight food insecurity and social workers' strategies to assist their food-insecure clients in Mississippi.

Graduate students in the department of speech-language pathology at Mississippi University for Women are currently serving clients with dyslexia through teletherap. They are using the application Whizzimo to provide structured literacy intervention to clients multiple times a week via Zoom. A certified speech-language pathology supervisor hosts the sessions and is available to provide support and feedback.

"During this pandemic, parents have the opportunity to observe their child's reading and spelling more than ever as they help with schoolwork at home," said Lynn Hanson, speech-language pathologist and clinic director at The W.

The W Speech & Hearing Center offers evidence-based intervention and evaluations for both children and adults with dyslexia. For more information about evaluations or treatment for dyslexia, please contact the Speech and Hearing Center at (662) 329-7270.

The University of Mississippi is home to a new center that aims to empower local communities and partner with them to advance community development, health and the arts. The UM Community First Research Center for Wellbeing and Creative Achievement, or UM: CREW, has several goals, including being a resource for communities applying for funding to improve community well-being and also aiding communities in designing humanities and art workshops and projects, including visual arts, music, dance or theatre arts. One of the early successes of UM: CREW is a nearly half-million-dollar grant from the Walmart Foundation for a food prescription program to improve access to fresh food for Mississippians. The program will provide about 45,000 meals for 200 people for two years.

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The Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning governs the public universities in Mississippi, including Alcorn State University; Delta State University; Jackson State University; Mississippi State University including the Mississippi State University Division of Agriculture, Forestry and Veterinary Medicine; Mississippi University for Women; Mississippi Valley State University; the University of Mississippi including the University of Mississippi Medical Center; and the University of Southern Mississippi.

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