Translating Research into Everyday Health

[Post by host Brian Southwell]

Our last new episode of 2020 is fitting given the state of the world. In the episode, we sat down with vaccine researcher and community engagement specialist Dr. Michele Andrasik of the University of Washington to talk about how her work on HIV vaccine research participation has set the stage for vital new work to increase community participation in clinical trials related to COVID-19. Our discussion tied together numerous threads of conversation we have explored all year on the show such as how people understand infectious disease, inequities in health, and community engagement with science and scientists. Although the show offers a relevant end to 2020 and a hopeful look ahead, it is striking is how unanticipated such a show would have been a year ago in some ways as 2019 wound down and we planned for 2020. Only the faintest whispers of concerns about what would become COVID-19 circulated publicly in December 2019. At the same time, some core realizations about how people and groups behave nonetheless would have predicted aspects of our year: that we would struggle with a pandemic that has been fueled by human behavior, that a pandemic would affect essential workers more than others, that we would see highlighted stark differences in the access to healthcare between groups, and that we would face challenges in ensuring everyone knows enough about how rapidly evolving scientific inquiry works to understand the decisions we need to make together. Recently, the National Institutes of Health published a set of insights regarding COVID-19 vaccination — I should disclose I contributed to the project — and much of the review focused squarely on our humanity. As we look ahead into the future, we are often confronted with reflections of ourselves.

What does this all mean as we look past 2020 and into a more distant future? At least some theorists of time have argued that our human experience of the past and anticipation of the future is somewhat illusory, or at least somewhat relative to our condition. We mark time in increments that are not constantly experienced at all points in the universe in the same way. Even our very sense of passage from a secure and rooted past into an open and uncertain future itself might be a function of our brains having evolved to navigate the world by using a known past to somehow fumble through unknown terrain. All of that suggests that a future will — and does — exist beyond our human perception and our sense of transit toward it is constrained by our human tendencies and experiences. Research that helps us understand how people think and why they behave as they do will not necessarily alter astronomical balances but might ease our years ahead by increasing equity, reducing violence and waste, and liberating human minds to better consider the rest of our world beyond those same human minds. Although we cannot say with certainty what exactly we will be talking about a year from now, chances are good that understanding our human needs, limitations, and strengths will improve our ability to weather whatever might come our way.

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