Building trust through the Community Engagement Studio model

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Published September 16, 2020


CTSI Community Engagement Core Director Laurene Tumiel-Berhalter, PhD

“The studios help us as an institution to show our commitment to conducting research that is influenced by the community voice.”

The importance of community engagement to effective research cannot be overstated. This is one reason why the Community Engagement team at UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) advocates the use of the Community Engagement Studio model developed by the Meharry-Vanderbilt Community-Engaged Research Core. This unique method features direct input from participating stakeholders in order to better inform research design and dissemination. It uses a structured approach to bring researchers and members of the community together, face-to-face (or virtually), for a bidirectional conversation around research studies.

Investigators at Vanderbilt found that participating in studios has improved the quality of their research and increased their understanding of and sensitivity to study populations: “Participating researchers, representing a broad range of faculty ranks and disciplines, reported that input from stakeholders was valuable and that the CE [Community Engagement] Studio helped determine project feasibility and enhanced research design and implementation. Stakeholders found the CE Studio to be an acceptable method of engagement and reported a better understanding of research in general.” [From “Community Engagement Studios: A Structured Approach to Obtaining Meaningful Input From Stakeholders to Inform Research.”]

The method is already being used at UB. CTSI Community Engagement Core Director Laurene Tumiel-Berhalter, PhD, believes the use of Community Engagement Studios further builds on the CTSI’s focus on working closely with Western New Yorkers.

“The studios help us as an institution to show our commitment to conducting research that is influenced by the community voice,” she says. “It makes our research more relatable and helps us avoid assumptions about our target populations that often contribute to challenges in recruitment and retention in studies. The Community Engagement Studio model can help us build trust in the community and can potentially have a positive impact on the overall design and conduct of the research.”

Integrating community members into research

CTSI Community Research Facilitator Megan Wilson-Crowley, MPA, says the CTSI team learned about the studio model through its connections with other Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) hubs. Seeing how the model has enhanced the research at other CTSAs, the CTSI decided to offer the resource to UB faculty as a way to better integrate community members into research.

“Studios are a great way to open the door for researchers who are interested in working with the community but might not know how to start, and can also be a valuable experience for veteran researchers,” Wilson-Crowley says. “Overall, input from the community better informs research design, leading to more culturally relevant interventions and meaningful outcomes.”

A School of Nursing faculty member participated in the CTSI’s pilot Community Engagement Studio in February 2019. The study explored the acceptability of an eHealth HIV prevention toolkit for Black/African American couples in Western New York. Based on feedback received from studio participants, the research team members indicated that the experience increased their understanding and sensitivity to the community.

In addition, researchers found that the studio experience provided valuable insight which impacted the approach of the study and allowed them to more easily recruit participants. The study resulted in a manuscript and grant applications to other funding sources.

A unique twist on participation in research

“With a successful pilot, we just recently launched the program,” says Wilson-Crowley. “We are now working with a principal investigator from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences on a virtual Community Engagement Studio. Our goal now is to continue to promote the program and to identify potential matches with research teams.”

For Tumiel-Berhalter, considering long-term outcomes demonstrates the model’s relevance.

“Most research will eventually benefit patients,” she explains. “So, the input of those future patients during the research process can help us move faster and more efficiently.”

CTSI Community Recruitment Liaison Danielle Abramo-Balling manages the Buffalo Research Registry, an online registry which matches Western New Yorkers to local research, events and educational opportunities. She relishes the opportunity to bring Community Engagement Studio opportunities to registry participants.

“This gives them the chance to serve as community experts and advise researchers on topics that are meaningful to them and their communities,” Abramo-Balling says. “It is a unique twist on participating in and contributing to research.”

A recent online information session drew a total of 38 participants from seven schools at UB, with a diverse representation of faculty, staff and students. To Abramo-Balling, that level of interest, coupled with the CTSI’s active audience of engaged members of the community, means the use of studios at UB will continue to grow.

“At one of our Community Engagement Studios, the participants were so excited to provide feedback, and that the researcher was right there with them listening to their ideas — not a coordinator or a student team member,” she says. “That level of excitement from participants is a reason that researchers are finding studios to be a powerful model.”

The CTSI provides funding for four Community Engagement Studios each year. Interested researchers can apply by completing a brief REDCap application: To find out more about the model and how it might fit their research, teams can also request consultations by visiting