by Kathleen M. Vandiver, MIT CEHS COE2C Director
Recognizing that people in their communities wanted to learn how to write more effective grant proposals, and they might not have the funds to travel, the Passamaquoddy Tribe decided to organize an event in Pleasant Point, Maine. The Sipayik Environmental Department included Asha Ajmani, William Longfellow and Christopher Johnson, invited CEHS Director John Essigmann to come to Pleasant Point to teach a workshop in the morning and to lead a community forum in the afternoon. The event took place at the tribe’s Koluscap Community Center on March 10, 2017 with 30 people in attendance. This community engagement event was also designed to help tribal and community members recognize how a local issue of concern might be transformed into a grant proposal that could potentially improve public health.
So who came to this event? Quite a broad variety of people from many organizations attended! Many were affiliated with the Passamaquoddy from Pleasant Point and Township, and they including members from tribal government, the health center, and the environmental department. Members of the Penobscot Tribe came from furthest away, from Indian Island near Bangor, Maine. Non-tribal individuals from local coast businesses as well as town officials participated, including a participant from a whale watching company and some businesses in Eastport, Maine. This broad participation was accomplished by resourceful advertising-- through word of mouth, the tribal newsletter on Facebook, email, and by placing flyers on tribal bulletin boards, doors, and all around downtown Eastport. Flyers were also sent to the Indian Township’s Environmental Department and the Penobscot Natural Resources Department where their directors posted them.
John Essigmann, CEHS Center Director, taught the art and the essentials of proposal writing on that morning in March. His presentation was organized around the following topics: how to create online searches for government and private opportunities for grant applications; how to find papers in the scientific literature and news websites relevant to a possible application. After that, he focused on teaching about the writing techniques and the review processes, specifically on how a grant proposal is structured and how a proposal will be reviewed by a group of peers and/or community advocates.
Essigmann offered some key take-home messages. For instance, he emphasized the critical importance of the abstract and specific aims at the beginning of the proposal, stressing these components must to be well-designed to capture and maintain the attention of the reviewers from the onset. Additionally he stated that these sections could be enhanced by an introductory figure to communicate the vision behind the proposed project.
The afternoon session was organized as a community forum. Essigmann invited participants to raise local environmental health issues of concern so that together they might practice how to reframe these issues into a proposal. While guiding the discussion, Essigmann also explained what agencies might provide support for the ideas that were raised. Here is one example of a problem of local importance to the Passamaquoddy. During the Spring, Native Americans traditionally eat young ferns called fiddleheads that are very abundant in the fields and forests at this time. Ferns, however, reportedly accumulate heavy metals, including arsenic, nickel, mercury and cadmium and that now raises concern. While studies of the health effects of ferns were discussed, Essigmann and the tribe formulated a very practical early-stage proposal that might catch the interest of a potential funder.
The analytical methods that could be applied in the laboratory to detect the metals in the ferns were also presented. Since metals bio-accumulate in the ferns from the soil, it was reasoned that ferns collected in some areas might have less metal content than ferns collected elsewhere. The participants then helped to design a three-year study specifically because grants are typically awarded for that length of time. Participants were eager to provide the citizen science expertise. They could help the environmental laboratory by carefully collecting and labeling the fern samples from different locations.
Importantly, some members of the Sipayik Environmental Department have already received training at the MIT CEHS Core Facility laboratories. Consequently, the department could bring the fern samples to MIT to analyze the samples for metal content using MIT’s inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS). The goal would be to publish these findings in the scientific literature. Moreover, these results could inform the tribe’s fern harvesting practices and, it is hoped, toimprove peoples’ long-term health. Taken together, these outreach and engagement activities demonstrate how a potential research proposal, focused on a local issue of concern, might engage citizens and tribal environmental members in improving public health.