Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, May 7, 2010

Inaugural Michigan Meetings to explore consumption and cancer disparities

The first in what university officials expect will be an annual series of Michigan Meetings begins next week. It will offer an interdisciplinary exploration of the fundamental human drive to acquire, consume, and retain important resources.

“The Interdisciplinary Science of Consumption: Mechanisms of Allocating Resources Across Disciplines” runs May 12-15. A second forum, “The Economy and Cancer Health Disparities,” will follow on May 20-22 and will look at how the current economic crisis creates inequities in cancer care and ways to improve those disparities.

More information
• Details about the “The Interdisciplinary Science of Consumption”
• Details about the “The Economy and Cancer Health Disparities”

The Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies organized a campuswide competition for proposals to offer exciting interdisciplinary conversations, offering funding for each meeting, which will be conducted at the Rackham Building, 915 E. Washington St.

These two meetings were chosen to launch the series because each combines a topic of broad public interest with depth and breadth of scholarly expertise at U-M. Both meetings have sessions that are open to the public.

“The University of Michigan embraces interdisciplinary approaches in ways that are uniquely productive,” says Peggy McCracken, associate dean for academic programs and initiatives at Rackham. “It brings together people looking at common questions using differing and complementary theories, methods, and perspectives.”

By gathering a variety of experts to look at different aspects of a topic, the university hopes to raise the profile of research that is under way or, perhaps, take it in a creative new direction.

“We hope the meetings will stimulate new areas of collaboration and engage graduate students in thinking about important questions at the frontiers of their disciplines,” McCracken says. “We are delighted to bring attention to the University of Michigan as a place where interdisciplinary inquiry is celebrated.”

The Michigan Meeting on “The Interdisciplinary Science of Consumption” will include a Consumption Fair on May 15 with a student poster session, a panel discussion titled “The Human Side of Energy Conservation: It’s Not Easy Being Green,” and interactive displays and activity stations for people of all ages, with special activities just for kids from 12:30-2:30 p.m. There also will be public lectures featuring Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal at 5:15 p.m. May 12, and Cornell University economics professor Robert Frank at 6 p.m. May 13.

Stephanie Preston, assistant professor of psychology and leader of the Michigan Meeting on consumption, says the public sections of the forum are expected to draw large, diverse crowds, and that the response from the scientific community for the more specialized working sessions has been “very enthusiastic.”

On-site registration with a nominal fee will be available for U-M students and faculty. The academic sessions will be fairly specialized and designed for people with knowledge of the related disciplines. “We hope to actually come away from our interdisciplinary exchange with a working model of human consumption,” Preston says. “To achieve this goal, we need the experts in each domain to be able to talk to one another extensively, sharing even low-level details about their system of interest.”

Many researchers are working on how people make decisions about such things as money, food, and drugs of abuse, but the research is only beginning to look at decisions about resources important to environmental issues, such as material goods or fossil fuels, Preston says. The forum will bring together experts in psychology, economics, animal behavior and other fields in a quest for solutions that reach across academic disciplines.

“This topic needs to be interdisciplinary because there is currently no single field studying the human origins of consumption. Rather, the information is highly dispersed across economics, marketing, neuroscience, and psychology and, as such, researchers are not particularly aware of the striking similarities across models of behavior,” Preston says.

Dr. Christopher Sonnenday, assistant professor of surgery and of health management and policy, leads the Michigan Meeting on “The Economics of Cancer Disparities.” He says the goal is to highlight the persistent nature of cancer health disparities; how financial stresses may prompt people to skip preventive measures, such as screenings, or avoid seeking care for new problems; and how the current health care reform legislation affects disparities in cancer occurrence and care.

Considerable research has been conducted at U-M on disparities in access to health care and disease outcomes, based on race, ethnicity, gender, geography and socioeconomic status.

“The goal of this meeting is to bring together disparities researchers, policy experts, and community leaders interested in designing and executing goal-directed interventions to improve cancer health disparities,” Sonnenday says. “Our objectives include informing the discussion of cancer care disparities and the impact of the economy on these inequities, discussing the efficacy of specific community-level interventions and policy initiatives in this area, and setting an agenda moving forward on specific actions to address this problem.”

Response to the topic has been impressive, he says, with national and state researchers and policy experts expressing enthusiasm along with local community organizations, including health advocacy groups, churches, community centers and others.

The sessions on May 20 and 21 will be academic-focused, while May 22 will feature a town hall forum “Cancer and the Economy: Community Based Solutions” with an address by Dr. Lovell Jones of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, as well breakout sessions and small-group panel discussions.

“We particularly want to focus on community-level interventions and policy initiatives in this area that have and have not worked, with a view towards setting an agenda for change that can be carried out after the meeting,” Sonnenday says. “We want this meeting to be a launch point for future efforts locally and nationally to make progress towards ameliorating cancer health disparities.”