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CALS strengthens NYC connections with new grant projects

Three new collaborative New York City-based projects, designed to inspire innovative cross-campus research partnerships, have been awarded grant funding totaling approximately $500,000 from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

These three-year projects will add to the more than 60 existing CALS initiatives in New York City, further strengthening the ties between upstate and downstate. These projects also support the broader goals of President Martha E. Pollack’s Visioning Committee for Cornell in NYC, which awarded funds to four cross-disciplinary faculty projects for the 2019-20 academic year.

Cornell impacting New York State

“With this special initiative, we felt it was important to showcase the breadth of CALS research,” said Max Pfeffer, executive dean of CALS. “Of all the excellent proposals we received, we selected the ones whose scope of work and overall impact were most relevant to both the New York City and Ithaca campus communities.”

The three funded projects:

Can the Digital Patient Activated Learning System Increase Racial Minority Engagement with Health Information? The project pairs Neil Lewis Jr., assistant professor of communication, with collaborators at Weill Cornell Medicine to address the critical problem of racial inequality and access to health care.

“Not only are people from racial-ethnic minority and low-income backgrounds less likely to have access to health information, when they do have access, they are less likely to pay attention to it,” Lewis said. “This is in part due to differences in access to those sources, as well as lingering distrust of the medical system due to historic and contemporary mistreatment in that system.”

The team is developing a user-friendly digital platform called the Patient Activated Learning System (PALS). Unlike sites that organize content by what information medical experts have, PALS starts with what patients want to know.

“By first asking the patients about what questions they have about their disease or their medication,” Lewis said, “we can get the correct answers from experts and translate them into accessible language on the platform.”

Over the next two years, the team will test PALS at minority-serving clinics in Manhattan, Long Island City, Ithaca and Cortland to see how patients absorb information, to what extent they trust the PALS digital platform and whether that trust can be extended to the broader health care system.

“It’s the perfect partnership,” Lewis said, “blending the theoretical expertise that we have in communication with the practical on-the-ground expertise that the doctors have from working with patients.”

Agriculture in the City: Growing Healthy Soils for Healthy Communities: Jenny Kao-Kniffin, associate professor in the Horticulture Section in the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS), and Jonathan Russell-Anelli, senior lecturer and senior extension associate in the Soil and Crop Sciences Section of SIPS, built a team to create applied solutions to current challenges in urban agriculture, including food availability, individual and community health, environmental contamination and economic opportunity.

The collaboration unites other members of SIPS, the Department of Entomology, Cornell Waste Management Institute, Cornell Tech and urban agricultural specialists at Harvest New York. After the team conducts a three-year survey of existing New York City plots, they will develop a mobile app to share their findings with urban growers in a readily accessible format, with information tailored to their needs. The app will include soil management guidelines for different kinds of urban gardens and farms, in addition to crop management and sustainability resources. 

This “internet of things” communication bridges the gap between the initial soil health assessment and the need to monitor how urban crops adapt to changing conditions.

“Land-grant universities provide a vital role to the community by enabling the flow of information to reach stakeholders without the need to meet profit margins,” Kao-Kniffin said. “This concept is important when focusing on soil health and other long-term management techniques that promote sustainability. The stakeholders need to trust that the source of the information is truly committed to that sustainability.”

Certificate Training Program in Food and Innovation Safety: Olga Padilla-Zakour, director of the Cornell Food Venture Center (CFVC) at Cornell AgriTech, will work with extension associates Bruno Xavier and Ann Charles Vegdahl to develop an online certificate program called “Science and Business of Food Innovation.”

The training program will have modules that provide entrepreneurs and students with a background in food business, market research, product development, food safety, regulatory agencies, processing, packaging and commercialization.

“We’re seeing an enormous demand of support for food entrepreneurs in New York City and other parts of the country who are in dire need of proper training in food safety technology,” Padilla-Zakour said.

In 2018, the CFVC performed over 2,100 validations for value-added food products. In 2017, 40% of their requests came from startups.

The funding from CALS will enable the CFVC to hire a full-time extension associate specialist to help create the certificate program in collaboration with eCornell and then implement the training.

Jana Wiegand is the content manager at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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Lindsey Hadlock