Food & HealthfrankHealthScience

The Science Of Communication: An interview with Dr. Sara Bleich, 2015 frank grand prize winner

“We, as academics, are really well trained in how to do rigorous research, but often that rigorous research has real world information that has to be disseminated in a meaningful way.”  –Sara Bleich, winner 2015 frank research prize.

Soon we’ll be taking submissions for the frank 2016 research prizes in public interest communications. Our prizes recognize new and insightful academic research that will inform better public interest communication practice. Each year three finalists are brought to the frank gathering to present their research and compete for a $10,000 prize. The frank audience votes for the $10K winner, and our two other finalists each receive $1500.

To kick things off, we thought we would start by talking with the 2015 frank prize winner, Dr. Sara Bleich. Bleich received her PhD from Harvard in 2007 in health policy, and is now an associate professor at John Hopkins University. You may have heard Bleich on NPR talking about her award winning research. In it, she and her colleagues examined the effectiveness of using easily understandable information to get black youth to buy fewer surgery beverages in corner stores in Baltimore city. Bleich, a native of Baltimore city, focused particularly on black youth because, on average, they drink larger amounts of sugary beverages, and are at higher risk for obesity.

In the study, they put up informational signs in local corner stores that showed the customers how many miles and how much time they would have to walk to burn off the calories from a soda. What they found was that not only did access to easily understandable information lead to decreases in purchases of soda, but the kids continued to purchase fewer sodas even after they took down the signs.

This research is insightful because it shows that easily understandable information matters, but more importantly it shows that kids can learn how to improve their health and make better choices. This project provides evidence of a very low cost public health intervention, as well as insight into the effectiveness of strategic messaging.

I called Sara to talk with her about her work in public health and its relationship to the field of public interest communications. I also asked her what it was like to attend frank, and win the $10,000 frank research prize. Check it out!

Annie: How did you get into the field of public health and health policy?

Sara: Public health is one of those really interesting fields where many people come from different disciplines. It is not uncommon to learn about this field post graduate school or post training. Like many public health people, I started off thinking I wanted to be a physician. I took the pre-med classes, but I quickly realized that it really wasn’t the thing that go me excited and made me tick. While I was an undergraduate I did a summer abroad in Zimbabwe. While I was there I was one of 17 Americans and we all lived with host families in the capital city. Each of our host families had someone die during that period of the HIV epidemic. It was then that I felt for the first time the impact of health on wellbeing. I came back to New York, where I was doing my undergraduate work at Columbia University, thinking I love the idea of helping lots of people at one time, not helping a person individually on a case by case basis, but again I had never heard about public health. So I graduated and ended up falling into a job that I now know of as public health consulting. I did that for a couple of years, really fell in love with it, and decided to get a degree in health policy.  All the work that I do is with an eye towards how to use policy and communications to help people live healthier lives.

A: What do you think is the relationship between public health and public interest communications?

S: I think public health can learn a lot from public interest communications. I think a huge handicap for people that do academic research in public health and other fields, is that we, as academics, are really well trained in how to do rigorous research, but often that rigorous research has real world information that has to be disseminated in a meaningful way. What public health is trying to do at its core is save lives, its trying to improve peoples quality of life, and it is hard to do that if the information that is meant to touch people never does. I think public interest communications can create that bridge. It can identify the ways to take complicated messages and make them simple and digestible, and disseminate them to the people whose lives we are trying to affect.

A: You are getting me so excited for the field of public interest communications! So, what was it like submitting your research to frank?

S: It was very easy! There certainly aren’t big barriers to entry. I simply had to submit the original abstract, the abstract for the lay audience, and then the paper itself. It took less then a half an hour to submit. Then, I was notified that I was a finalist. I think the time between submitting and being notified was a couple months, so not that long by academic standards. It was a painless process, there is no reason someone shouldn’t engage in it.

A: What was it like attending frank?

S: One of the things I enjoyed most about frank was the opportunity to be among people of so many different fields. In my world, I am usually surrounded by academics that tend to all think a certain way. It is not common that I am around people with expertise in media; this was a conference where I learned much more than I had at other conferences, it took me out of my comfort zone to an area that I need to grow.

So, if you are considering it at all, apply. You will not lose anything by trying. The competition for the prize is great, but it is also an opportunity to actually improve and grow, particularly if what you do is not in communications, you get a lot out of it regardless if you win the prize.

A: What was it like presenting at frank?

S: I thought it was so much fun! I like the idea of being forced to present in a specific amount of time. If there was one thing I learned in graduate school, it is that less is more and that precision is really important. So, the challenge of having to say a lot in eight minutes is an important skill to work towards, and having the opportunity to try that was really fun for me. I also like the challenge of having to really talk everyone through the research. Rather than just putting up statistics, it was really using pictures and images to compel the audience, and that was something I have never had done before, it was an interesting challenge.

A: So do you think you learned something about communications through your talk?

S: Absolutely. It also really reenforced for me something that I know well, and that is that you have to reach your audience. If the frank audience had been a different audience, if they had been academics it would have been a very different talk. But, they weren’t academics, they were groups whom I have never presented to before,  so that required a very different style of presenting.

I should say that Burness Communications, which is a public interest communications firm, took it upon themselves to pro-bono provide me with guidance on the front end, and helped me do a better job at presenting at frank. They gave me guidance and it was tremendously valuable for me.

A: That’s awesome! Sounds like a great learning experience. So how did it feel to win the $10,000 prize?

S: It was so rewarding  for so many different reasons. One of the reasons is, I focused on inner city, Baltimore City because I grew up there, and I know those corner stores so well. As a kid, I know what it’s like to buy junk from the stores, and as a result, gain weight. So on a personal level it was hugely gratifying to be recognized for giving back to a community that I am from, and that I am personally committed to trying to improve. The other piece is, you typically go into public health research because, in your own little way, you want to change the world, you want to make people healthier, you want to do your small part. To have the recognition by people, who really know the role of communication in changing minds, acknowledge this project as something that was moving in that direction was a huge note of encouragement for this work, which is not easy to do, but really important.

A: What was the first thing you did after you found out you won the prize?

S: I texted my husband and he was thrilled! The first person I hugged was someone from my frank krewe. She gave me a great big hug, and that was really nice.

I have to say, the other thing about frank is it was the most fun conference I have ever been to. I remember before going into the scavenger hunt thinking this is either going to be really fun or really lame, and it was one of the most fun things.

A: Cool! It sounds like you were able to make good connections with your krewe.

S: We did! The first night of the scavenger hunt was a bonding experience, and then of course throughout the conference. Just the other day there were emails circulating throughout the group.

You know, between the level of energy among the frank attendees, and the huge emphasis on networking, I think that the conference was very thoughtful at creating places for people to talk to each other, rather than being talk at the whole time.

At the risk of sounding too much like a frank lover, I’d say one of the things that I really enjoyed about frank was an expressed focus on time to connect people in all sorts of ways. There were all these direct and indirect ways of trying to connect people.

A: That’s awesome! You know the frank mission is: obsessively connecting those who speak for the greater good.

S: Yes, exactly. That is what you guys do well.


Posted: June 12, 2015