Brad Ray has devoted his career to better understanding issues involving substance use, mental health, and the criminal justice system. As the director of the Center for Health and Justice Research at the IU Public Policy Institute, he spends most of his time building partnerships to ensure his research impacts the community.
“I can say with certainty that the best research questions I’ve ever answered have come from relationships with my community partners,” he says.
His dedication to building those relationships—and commitment to ensuring his research gets to those who need it—gained the attention of the selection committee for IUPUI’s Bantz-Petronio Translating Research into Practice (TRIP) Award. They selected Ray as the 2019 TRIP Award recipient.
“I feel a great sense of humility getting this award,” Ray says. “Of all the awards I might have received from IUPUI, this one provides the greatest sense of personal accomplishment.”
Each year, the award recognizes outstanding work by an IUPUI TRIP Scholar in translating research into practice and solutions that provide innovative ways to improve lives or the community.
Stephan Viehweg serves as the associate director of IUPUI’s Center for Translating Research into Practice, in addition to his position with the IU School of Medicine. He says Ray was selected based on his interdisciplinary work relating to the opioid epidemic, mental health issues, and the many contributing factors in combating these issues.
“Brad is a great example of a translational scholar,” Viehweg says. “He’s taking evidence and applying it in different ways to try to solve a problem in unique ways. He’s engaging the community to find partners in other disciplines who can make an impact on these issues.”
Viehweg says IUPUI is a hotbed for translational research, where faculty come for an opportunity to take their research beyond the confines of a university setting and test their theories.
“IUPUI is known throughout the country as a place where a researcher can engage with community members in trying to solve problems and apply ideas in different ways,” he adds. “That’s important because that’s where we make a difference.”
Ray agrees. He says he views community-engaged and translational research as the single most rewarding part of academia.
“It’s an incredibly important aspect of our role as faculty members and one that is, unfortunately, often overlooked,” he says. “Faculty and universities need to continue to change that culture, create incentives, and reduce barriers towards community-engaged and translational research.”
The Center for Translating Research into Practice helps faculty do just that. By visiting its website and adding research efforts to its database, faculty members own their research and join a network of colleagues focused on solving the world’s complex problems.
Viehweg says academics can do the research and analysis, but having community connections provides a more holistic approach to addressing social issues.
“Brad is particularly good at translating research in a way that the community can be included and involved,” Viehweg says. “That helps them appreciate the role we can play in a problem-solving partnership. Brad is someone who makes that possible and makes IUPUI approachable.”
Ray takes his role as a researcher and community partner seriously. He has worked with coroners, state court administrators, and first responders to develop research questions, collect data, and publish reports that are directly related to issues his partners face.
“I make a very real effort to translate my research into something that can be both understood and used to effect change,” he says. “My aim is to expand or enhance the adoption of best practices in the community towards addressing social problems.”
Ray says as those problems arise and develop, it’s incumbent upon academics to move out of their comfort zone, genuinely connect with community organizations, and help address challenges in the community.
For example, the team at CHJR worked to analyze data to provide a better view of the reality surrounding opioid-related deaths in Marion County. They found those deaths were vastly undercounted, mostly due to the fact that coroners simply didn’t have a box to check when it came to reporting specific substances. In 2018, Ray’s work contributed to the body of research used by state legislators to change how coroners code drug overdose deaths, making the reports more specific.
Ray says playing a role in the changes that make a difference in society should be the goal of all research.
“Academics cannot expect that their findings will have an impact through only a publication, lecture, or national conference presentation,” he says. “We need to create policy briefs that summarize findings that don’t sit behind a paywall; we need to be present at local community events; we need to take the time to have one-on-one conversations with those who want to understand the research so they can help to make it actionable.”