NIH awards $4 million grant to Emory University and University of Georgia to launch center focused on improving the health of Black children

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn named co-director of Center for Children’s Health Assessment, Research Translation and Combating Racism

Many Black communities in Metro Atlanta face high levels of environmental exposures that can negatively impact the health of Black children, and scientists are faced with the challenge of effectively communicating the dangers of environmental exposures to diverse communities. To address these issues, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has awarded a $4 million five-year grant to support research related to addressing health disparities through transformative communication strategies.

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, associate professor of advertising at Grady College, will direct the health communication initiatives of the grant and serve as co-director of the newly created Center for Children’s Health Assessment, Research Translation and Combating Racism.

With this grant, an Emory-led team of environmental health scientists and health communication experts from the University of Georgia will join forces to translate important environmental health research findings to key stakeholders in the community, academia and health care systems. The new Center will develop high-impact messaging strategies that can be used to improve children’s health by focusing on health literacy and best practices in prevention communication and dissemination.

Faculty from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and Spelman College, one of nation’s most prestigious historically black colleges for women, will also play a critical role in advancing the science generated by the Center and ensuring meaningful discussions and rapid feedback between a community advisory board and all members of the Center.

Linda McCauley, dean and professor at Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, will direct the new Center.

“This Center is uniquely positioned to foster excellence in research on children’s environmental health that will nurture the next generation of scientists and provide information that can benefit the Atlanta community, which has suffered from decades of environmental racism and has many of the highest levels of health disparities in the nation,” said McCauley. “Our goal is to improve the health of children, and we know better communications will lead to prevention and early detection of environmental health exposures.”

Ahn, who also directs the Games and Virtual Environments Lab at Grady College, will use her expertise in interactive digital media and health messaging at the new Center.

“We hope to expand the public health impact of children’s environmental health science by synthesizing existing research into innovative health communication interventions, curricula and policies,” Ahn said of the new project. “Together, we will identify target audiences among marginalized and under-resourced populations and design innovative health messages that can help us better communicate with audiences that have traditionally been challenging to reach.”

The Center will also partner with Sharecare, the digital health company whose comprehensive and data-driven virtual health platform helps people, providers, employers, health plans, government organizations, and communities optimize individual and population-wide well-being by driving positive behavior change.

Donna Hill Howes, RN, MS, chief nursing officer and SVP, corporate partnerships of Sharecare, commented, “Increasing access to information about children’s environmental health is critical to building strong, healthy communities. Working closely with our partners at Emory, UGA, and the Center, we believe that, together, we can effectively support the translation of health science to action-oriented information by leveraging our content and products, connecting stakeholders across fields, and utilizing our national reach to augment children’s environmental health.”

Emory is one of six academic institutions in a network of Children’s Environmental Health Research Translation Centers in the U.S., and it will serve as the National Coordinating Center for the network. The Coordinating Center will be led by Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Children’s Environmental Health Network. Other Centers were awarded to Johns Hopkins University, Oregon State University, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, and the University of Southern California.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number P2CES033430. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

NIEHS supports research to understand the effects of the environment on human health and is part of the National Institutes of Health.

Ahn leads VR project with grant from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn and a team of researchers are recipients of a nearly $500,000 grant funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

The grant will fund a project called “Salient, Interactive, Relevant, Confidence, and Action (SIRCA): Using Virtual Reality Storm Surge Simulations to Increase Risk Perception and Prevention Behaviors.”

The project uses VR to better communicate and educate the risks of storm surge and climate change among coastal residents of Georgia and South Carolina.

“The problem of climate change and sea level rise is complex,” said Ahn, director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab (GAVEL) at Grady College. “We need to be cognizant of the fact we are trying to solve a complicated issue and help communicate these safe practices with different resources and needs.”

The new grant proposal focuses on two areas: 1. the experience of storm surge and mitigation behaviors and 2. creating a cross-platform experience that can be used with both headsets as well as a two-dimensional experience, like a kiosk at a museum, to reach the largest number of people.

Viewers, for example, may go through a simulation where they see their home flooded and experience personal risk through a storm surge. Different solutions users could have taken to mitigate the damage ahead of time are presented, like buying flood insurance, elevating their house and evacuating. The exercise is then repeated to show the effect of the viewer’s decision.

This new project is an extension of a prototype developed a few years ago that used VR to demonstrate the extent of damage to a home hit by a hurricane. The prototype was funded through a 2017 UGA Presidential Interdisciplinary Seed Grant.

A variety of platforms will be developed for this storm surge program to enable different audiences to learn in a variety of settings.

Ahn explains that organizations like NOAA are looking for the most effective ways to communicate the dangers of severe weather, and VR has been successful in converting messages to action. This is one of the first research grants like this from the NOAA Weather Program Office.

Studies show that messages delivered through a VR immersive experience have a longer lasting impact versus messages delivered by video or written communication.

The UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant is a partner in this research along with Clemson University and the National Weather Service South Carolina office.

Jill Gambill, a coastal resilience specialist with the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, explained this will be an important step in communicating story surge risks brought on by hurricanes and this information is expected to be used by the Weather Service, Department of Natural Resources and emergency managers, among others.

“It can be difficult to estimate the risks and this can be helpful in understanding the impact and lesson the threat to their homes and to their families,” Gambill said. “It’s exciting to be working with this really cool product that will help people be safer.”

Another important part of this project is offering options that are available to diverse circumstances.

“We know options like elevating a house aren’t available to everyone and we want to make sure we are cognizant of presenting a range of recommendations to mitigate risk,” Gambill said.

The team will be working with organizations like the National Estaurine Research Reserve and Harambee House, an environmental justice group in Savannah, to ensure that the solutions meet the needs of communities.

The simulations will be paired with training modules through workshops and outreach, as well as follow-up surveys over time to determine if any actions were taken by those who experienced the VR education.

One of the most important benefits of VR is its impact in translational science, or taking scientific findings and communicating them to audiences so they can make informed decisions.

“Projects like this provide a huge opportunity for communication scholars to address critical social issues like climate change and directly impact the communities around us through communication science,” Ahn said.

The research is expected take place over two years.

Haley Hatfield wins Top Paper award for research on racial bias in virtual reality

Haley Hatfield, a PhD student from El Dorado, Kansas, recently was awarded Top Paper honors from The Human Communication and Technology Division (HCTD) of the National Communication Association (NCA).

“I was a bit in shock, to be honest,” Hatfield said. “I care so much about this project and put so much of myself into it.”

Hatfield, along with her co-authors, submitted a paper titled: “Confronting Whiteness through Virtual Humans: A review of 20 years of research in prejudice and racial bias using virtual environments.”

The paper analyzes 53 studies that use virtual humans in the realm of video games or virtual reality and highlights areas where previous research did not display a historical understanding of racial inequality.

“When we interact with technology, it is easy to see it as being neutral or incapable of having biases,” Hatfield said of her research team’s findings. “It can be easy to forget that technology is created by biased humans and subsequently used by biased humans. And in many cases, these biases can become replicated within virtual spaces.”

Hatfield will present her findings to fellow researchers later this year in Seattle. (photo submitted)

Hatfield’s research is conducted in the Games and Virtual Environments Lab (GAVEL) with Grace Ahn and in the Brain, Body and Media Lab (BBAM) with Glenna Read. Hatfield’s focus is understanding the relationship between virtual reality and attitudes attributed to systemic racism and white privilege.

“I was so impressed with Haley’s tenacity and motivation,” said Ahn. “She always puts in a great deal of thought into her writing and every new draft she showed me was dramatically better than the earlier one.”

The paper emphasizes that virtual reality gives users a unique chance to feel experiences from others’ perspective. Hatfield says that opportunity makes it all the more important to be responsible and informed when portraying race in virtual environments.

“Moving forward, it will take a lot more listening from those who have been in the majority for so long and for those same people to continuously work to help uncover and responsibly dismantle systems of oppression within research and their personal lives,” said Hatfield.

Much of the research for this project occurred in the midst of the pandemic, when team collaboration was more difficult and feedback could be constrained due to distance. Ahn says those challenges made the work all the more impressive.

“She (Hatfield) is asking critical questions that force us to re-examine how we view and discuss technological advancements in communication, and I was glad that the reviewers agreed with us in seeing the significance of those discussions,” said Ahn. “We hope that this paper serves as an impetus to begin these difficult but important discussions. VR is a new and cool technology, but technological innovations alone are unable to resolve the problem of structural inequity and racism.”

This paper was Hatfield’s first submission to NCA. She will present the findings in person at NCA’s annual convention in Seattle in November.

Hatfield is in the AdPR track of the PhD program and aspires to become a tenured research professor where she can lead her own VR lab.

Virtual reality research wins best paper for I/ITSEC simulation committee; advances to best conference paper competition

Research using virtual reality family rooms to bring together members of the military deployed overseas and their families back home has been awarded the best paper in the Simulation committee of the I/ITSEC conference, the world’s largest modeling, simulation and training event, which will be virtual this year.

A team of researchers from the University of Georgia conducted the research and wrote the paper, “Virtual Family Room: Bridging the Physical Distance with Virtual Reality.” The research was funded by a University of Georgia President’s Interdisciplinary Seed Grant awarded by the Office of the Vice President of Research in 2019. Winning in one of the six conference committees qualifies the paper to be considered for the top paper award, which will be presented and named during the virtual conference.

“This project is particularly important for families with young children,” said Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, principal investigator of the project and an associate professor of advertising at Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “Kids communicate most effectively through shared experiences and while most social VR experiences don’t cater to children, this one does because it is based on age-appropriate, family-based activities.”

The research focuses on a virtual world that is a replica of a family home and backyard. The same Virtual Family Room is shared through Oculus Quest headsets worn by the deployed military member who is away from home, as well as the family members back home. The family can collectively or competitively play common games in this shared space and the activities range from watching a movie together to playing basketball, working on homework or drawing together, among others.

“Regardless where they are, family members are always excited about the opportunity to share the same experience that the family had before deployment, and this application allows them to do that,” Ahn, who is also an Owens Institute for Behavioral Research Fellow, continued. ­

The paper submitted to I/ITSEC, now referred to as vI/ITSEC, was based on data collected from focus groups where family members simulated a deployment situation and were observed interacting and engaging. The data showed that families felt the interactions were more memorable and realistic than alternatives like video chat.

In addition to scenarios involving military who are deployed overseas, this research has applications for anyone who travels regularly for work or even to those who are separated from loved ones for like many are experiencing because of the pandemic.

Another new application of this research is that it focuses on family health and well-being and not solely on employee productivity which has been the focus of most VR research dealing with employees and work productivity.

“People can’t be productive when their children at home are having issues,” said Ahn, who is also a mother of a young child. “It’s hard for people who travel to focus on work when you have family problems. This application could help address that.”

Ahn and the rest of the team were encouraged to submit the conference paper to I/ITSEC by Martin Bink, director of defense and security collaborations at the University of Georgia. Bink is familiar with the conference and serves on one of the planning committees. Bink said the conference typically averages between 300 and 500 submissions, so the fact this paper was one of six papers that was awarded is impressive.

“The significance of this recognition is that it is a rigorous process and a prestigious conference,” Bink said. “Finding the best ways to use VR is of interest to attendees and the importance of taking care of families and the novel use of technology was probably appealing to the committees judging the projects.”

The researchers involved with this project are all from the University of Georgia and include Dawn Robinson, professor of sociology and Fellow in the Owens Institute of Behavioral Research; Catherine W. O’Neal an assistant research scientist in the Department of Human Development and Family Science and a Fellow in the Owens Institute of Behavioral Research at the University of Georgia; and Kyle Johnsen, an associate professor in the College of Engineering.

Several UGA doctoral students were also involved with the project including the lead author of the paper, Andrew Rukangu (engineering); Kelsey Mattingly (sociology); Anton Franzluebbers (engineering); and Alexander Tuttle (engineering).

The Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) is the world’s largest modeling, simulation and training event and takes place online Nov. 30 – Dec. 4, 2020. Papers competing for the best paper award at the conference come from six committees including Human Performance Analysis and Engineering; Emerging Concepts and Innovative Technologies; Education; Policy, Standards Management and Acquisition; Simulation; and Training. The conference typically attracts nearly 17,000 attendees from a variety of sectors including the military, government, education and medical industries.

Ahn named co-editor of ‘Media Psychology’

Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, director of Grady College’s Games and Virtual Environments Lab and an associate professor of advertising, has been named co-editor of the journal “Media Psychology” beginning fall 2020.

Ahn joins Benjamin Johnson from the University of Florida, Marina Krcmar from Wake Forest University and Leonard Reinecke from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, as editors of Media Psychology.

“Media Psychology has always been one of my favorite journals in the field of communication and media psychology because of its interdisciplinary, yet rigorous, nature,” Ahn said. “Because of this, the journal is relatively young but has quickly risen as one of the most respected and high impact publication outlets in communication that attracts high quality, cutting-edge research.”

Ahn’s research has been regularly published in “Media Psychology” over the past several years, and she has served on its Editorial Board for the past four years.

Ahn’s research specializes in how interactive digital media transforms traditional rules of communication and social interactions, especially through virtual reality applications with regard to health, consumer psychology, conservation and education.

She continued: “I am excited to continue this tradition and to maintain an interdisciplinary orientation for the journal so that researchers are able to submit rigorous, and also exploratory and forward-pushing ideas that test the boundaries of traditional sciences.”

Ahn was the recipient of the 2019 Krieghbaum Under-40 Award presented by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication for outstanding contributions in three key areas: teaching, research and public service. In addition to her work in the GAVEL lab, she is co-director of Grady’s VERGE Lab. Currently, she is working on a $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for “The Virtual Fitness Buddy Ecosystem” encouraging children to have a more active lifestyle by using digital technology and incenting them with rewards through virtual reality interaction.

“Media Psychology” is an interdisciplinary journal devoted to publishing theoretically oriented, empirical research that is at the intersection of psychology and media/mediated communication.  Research topics include media uses, processes, and effects.

Grace Ahn named 2019 Krieghbaum Under-40 Award recipient

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, associate professor of advertising at Grady College, has been named the recipient of the 2019 Krieghbaum Under-40 Award by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. The award is one of the highest honors given by AEJMC, and will be presented during the annual AEJMC conference in Toronto.

“This is an enormous honor,” said Charles Davis, dean of Grady College. “The entire journalism and mass communication academy recognizes a single faculty member each year for this, so Grace has been recognized by the entire discipline.”

In addition to her role as associate professor, Ahn is also the director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab and co-director of the new VERGE Lab.

The award is named after the late Hillier Krieghbaum, a former professor at New York University and former president of AEJMC, to honor a journalism/communication faculty member who has made outstanding contributions to the industry in three key areas: teaching, research and public service.

Grace Ahn (right) leads an Alumni Weekend participant in a virtual reality workshop in 2017. (Photo: Camie Williams)

Ahn teaches undergraduate research methods classes, as well as graduate-level user experience research, communication theory and advertising classes.

Ahn’s research specializes in how interactive digital media transforms traditional rules of communication and social interactions, especially through virtual reality applications with regard to health, consumer psychology, conservation and education. Currently, she is working on a $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for “The Virtual Fitness Buddy Ecosystem” encouraging children to have a more active lifestyle by using digital technology and incenting them with rewards through virtual reality interaction. In Spring 2019, Ahn received a First-Year Odyssey Teaching Award from the UGA Office of Instruction for her seminar, “Harnessing the Power of Digital Technology for Better Lifestyle Choices,” and was awarded the Charles B. Knapp Early-Career Scholar Award in 2017. She was recently awarded an Interdisciplinary Seed Grant from UGA for an upcoming project using digital technology to bring families of deployed military together in virtual family rooms. She also received the 2017 AEJMC Emerging Scholar Grant.

“Emerging technologies like VR/AR have the potential to dramatically shift the way we communicate and interact with each other,” Ahn said of her work. “My research looks at how audiences can engage with virtual worlds in unprecedented ways, and how these virtual experiences impact the way people think and make decisions in the physical world. I’m incredibly honored and humbled to be recognized for the contributions that my work has been making to extend the earlier work in this area.”

Ahn will accept her Krieghbaum Under-40 Award during the General Session at the AEJMC Conference on Aug. 9 at 10 a.m.

In addition to Ahn, Yan Jin, the UGA Athletic Association Professor in Grady College, received the Krieghbaum Under-40 Award in 2014.

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn named Early Career Scholar

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, assistant professor of advertising and founding director of Grady’s Games and Virtual Environments Lab, was named the recipient of the Charles B. Knapp Early Career Scholar Award in Social and Behavioral Sciences. She accepted the award during an April 20, 2017, University of Georgia Honors Week ceremony.

The award is named in honor of the University of Georgia’s 20th president and recognizes outstanding accomplishment and evidence of potential future success in scholarship, creative work or research by an early career faculty member in the social and behavioral sciences.

Ahn is a prolific researcher in the fields of virtual reality, augmented reality and how immersive virtual environments influence user attitude and behavior. Much of Ahn’s research focuses on the technology of persuasive messages in health applications and seeing how to make them personally relevant to the subjects, frequently tapping the disciplines of communication, psychology, computer science and public health.

Ahn also serves as a researcher for the Center for Health and Risk Communication.