Penn Graduate Community-Engaged Research Mentorship

This program, adapted from Penn Undergraduate Research Mentorship (PURM), will engage graduate students in community-engaged research with a faculty mentor experienced in Academically Based Community Service (ABCS), participatory action research (PAR), and other forms of community-engaged scholarship.

This 10-week summer program offers an opportunity for graduate students interested in community-engaged research -- including those who may not know how to begin -- to work on smaller scale, short-term projects guided by faculty mentors.  The students will also be part of a learning community with faculty and other students interested in and doing this work across different disciplines.  There will be two check-in meetings during the summer for the participating students, their faculty mentors, Provost’s Graduate Academic Engagement Fellows, the Director of the Netter Center, and other Netter Center staff as appropriate.  

Each faculty mentor will select the graduate student who will work on their specified research project. Selected graduate students will receive a stipend of $5,400 for the summer.


Senior Faculty Mentor: Doug Jerolmack
Professor of Earth and Environmental Science 
School of Arts and Sciences
Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics
School of Engineering and Applied Science

Faculty Mentor: Paulo E. Arratia
Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics
School of Engineering and Applied Science

Graduate Mentees: 
Jared Rusnak,
Environmental Studies
Darra Snow, Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics

Two graduate students will work with Dr. Jerolmack and Dr. Arratia, as well as staff from the Netter Center and the Water Center, on community-engaged research and teaching associated with the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center (CCCEEC).  The distinctive environment of an environmental science laboratory situated by a natural creek provides a unique and meaningful chance for high school and Penn students to engage in collaborative, hands-on, real-world learning. The PGCERM students will gain experience in community engagement as well as support the development of new community-engaged research initiatives associated with Dr. Jerolmack and Dr. Arratia’s labs.

Senior Faculty Mentor: Emily Falk 
Professor of Communication, Psychology, Marketing, and OID (Operations, Informatics, and Decisions)
Vice Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication
Director of the Communication Neuroscience Lab
Director of the Climate Communication Division of the Annenberg Public Policy Center

Faculty Mentor: Andrew Strasser
Research Professor of Psychiatry
Perelman School of Medicine
Principal Investigator for TCORS 2.0 (2018-2023)
Director of Biobehavioral Smoking Laboratory

Graduate Mentees:
Kirsten Lydic,
Ben Muzekari, Annenberg

Project description coming soon


Senior Faculty Mentor: Andy Tan
Associate Professor of Communication
Director, Health Communication & Equity Lab
Annenberg School for Communication

Graduate Mentee:
Brittany Zulkiewicz, doctoral student in Annenberg

Project Title: Development of a Health Communication Campaign Using a Youth Participatory Action Research Approach

Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) centers youth as experts on problems affecting themselves and their peers and on solutions to address these issues. In Spring 2023, we collaborated with students at West Philadelphia High School using a YPAR approach to identify important health-related issues affecting their peers and communication targets, messages, messengers, and channels that could be used in a health communication campaign to reach their peers. The students identified mental health, nutrition, and sleep as important topics. Additionally, staff identified the on-campus health clinic as an underutilized health resource. Building on this work, we will collaborate with local high school students attending the Penn Netter Center Summer Program to design a communication campaign to promote mental health, sleep, and nutrition as well as the on-campus clinic. Students will learn about formative research and will collect and analyze data to inform the campaign design. We will then use that data and the students’ expertise to co-create print or digital messaging that can be implementedin local high schools during the 2023-2024 school year.

Faculty Mentor: Stephen Bonett
Assistant Professor of Nursing
School of Nursing

Graduate Mentee:
Thandi Lyew, doctoral student in Annenberg 

Project Title: Engaging the Community to Develop a Routine-Based Intervention for Adolescents

Adolescence is a critical developmental period characterized by rapid growth that necessitatesadequate sleep and nutrition (Das et al. 2017; Galvan, 2020). Markedly, sleep and nutrition, including the timing and regularity of these behaviors, are significant factors for mental health (Benca et al., 2009). Despite the importance of these health behaviors for adolescents’ overall health and well-being, adolescents often experience significant barriers that prevent them from meeting sleep and nutrition needs on a day-to-day basis. As such, we will work with adolescents to design a routine-developing intervention that promotes social support as a way of meeting day-to-day health goals. The intervention will aim to break down the larger task of consistently meeting sleep and nutrition routine benchmarks into more manageable daily tasks. The focus on day-to-day goal setting will be facilitated by increasingly feasible, scalable, and affordable smartphone-delivered intervention prompts. The target aims for this intervention emerged from community meetings and engagement activities over 10 weeks with adolescents from West Philadelphia. Throughout the summer, we will continue community meetings to center on specific sleep and nutrition goals that adolescent-partners endorse as priorities. From there, we will co-develop ecological momentary assessment formatted questions and message prompts for the intervention. To test the suitability of questions and message prompts, we will garner feedback and idea generation through a focus group. The focus group and engagement sessions with adolescent partners will inform the intervention’s design, usability, and feasibility.

Senior Faculty Mentor: Rand Quinn
Associate Professor of Communication
Director, Health Communication & Equity Lab
Annenberg School for Communication

Graduate Mentee:
Keri Davenport, PhD student in the Graduate School of Education

At this critical juncture in our nation’s history the need for more robust civic opportunities for young people is crucial. Without direct opportunities to engage and develop as civic actors young people will have a harder time acquiring essential knowledge and developing the necessary skills for productive civic engagement. This summer, we will collaborate with schools and other youth-serving organizations to develop, refine, and ultimately learn how to foster productive opportunities for young people to deliberate over the issues that matter most to them, their families, and their neighbors. Drawing from democratic deliberation, participatory democracy, and collective problem solving approaches, we will design and host civic deliberation sessions with students in West Philadelphia who are engaged in problem solving projects in their community. We will first surface a set of youth-identified civic issues (e.g., gun violence, environmental racism, gentrification). We will then host deliberation sessions on a civic issue and project with small groups of young people that will (1) create space to identify next steps to advance their projects, including reflecting on how the project has been going, and plan specifics of how to adjust accordingly,  (2) provide information on ways the issue has been/might be addressed in different ways, (3) create space for participants to deliberate over other possible solutions and policy alternatives to the issue, and (4) teach introductory skills and model how collective problem-solving might look in their communities. Our goal is to both learn from and learn how to structure these sessions to inform best practices for youth civic deliberation and offer tools to benefit the community of West Philadelphia.

Faculty Mentor: Akira Drake Rodriguez
Assistant Professor in City and Regional Planning
Weitzman School of Design

Graduate Mentee:
Vanya Srivastava, Master's student in City and Regional Planning

The issue of “toxic schools,” or schools built using hazardous materials (asbestos, lead in paint, plaster, and water) and exposing inhabitants to health risks (from mold and vermin that trigger asthma and other respiratory issues) are not unique to Philadelphia. As climate change has increased the exposure to these hazards inside and outside of school facilities, school districts  across the nation are looking to create more sustainable school buildings and grounds. This summer, the PGCERM student will support developing hands-on, participatory curriculums that incorporate youth voice into local city and school planning processes. One curriculum targets middle school students and centers on learning through doing and contributing to real local community development, while introducing students to the field of city planning, its tools and methods, and pathways to enter the field. This may include K-8 students engaging with mapping, surveying, facilitating community meetings, and other forms of participatory data collection and input. The second curriculum targets high school students and supports an upcoming environmental data collection, participatory planning process, and design-build project at a local high school. In building the curriculums, the student will incorporate feedback from Penn students, Penn faculty, K-12 teachers and students, and city planning and environmental professionals. The curriculums would be utilized in the upcoming academic year by local middle and high schools with the support of Penn partners.  


Senior Faculty Mentor: Mona Merling
Assistant Professor of Mathematics
School of Arts & Sciences

Faculty Mentor: Yumeng Ou
Assistant Professor of Mathematics
School of Arts & Sciences

Graduate Mentees: 
Maxine Calle,
PhD student in Math
Marielle Ong, PhD student in Math

Drs. Merling and Ou Joint Project: Math Circles in West Philadelphia

The purpose of “math circles” is to provide a learning space where mathematicians meet with K-12 students to work on thought-provoking math problems in an informal, extracurricular setting. Math circles are not meant to replace tutoring or test preparation sessions, but instead aim to show students the side of math that is often omitted in a traditional classroom: exploring, making conjectures, case-by-case analysis, proving your observations—in short, making mathematical discoveries. The goal of these learning spaces is to broaden participants’ understanding of math as a beautiful and creative subject, stimulate their curiosity, and teach them to think mathematically. These experiences can also help foster interest in pursuing mathematics or STEM as a career option. 

The goal of this summer project is to build infrastructure for math circles in West Philadelphia. We will research the practices of math circles which are already implemented across the country. Established math circles are typically organized as part of the outreach activities of local universities and colleges, so we plan to connect with colleagues at other universities who run successful math circles in their communities, as well as partners in the Penn GSE who have developed a successful “Responsive Math Teaching” model which incorporates math circles as part of the teacher training. We will also connect with teachers at our partner schools to assess how to best leverage our knowledge in order to incorporate K-12 math circles in West Philadelphia schools. Finally, we plan to connect with local students who are part of summer programs to test math circle ideas and adapt our approach in response.

The project will consist of two main parts:

(1) Research and learn from current successful math circles in order to set up the basic infrastructure for math circles. Build a bank of materials and procedures for math circles at different levels, specifically designed with West Philadelphia K-12 students in mind.

(2) Develop mechanisms for training Moelis Access Science undergraduate partners of the Netter Center to deliver math circles as part of their activities with local schools during the school year. This will help the math circle infrastructure develop beyond the scope of this summer project.


Senior Faculty Mentor: Andy Tan
Associate Professor of Communication
Director, Health Communication & Equity Lab
Annenberg School for Communication

Graduate Mentee: Danielle Clark, PhD student in Annenberg

Vaccine hesitancy among parents presents a barrier to curbing the spread of the highly infectious coronavirus disease. Only 35% of children ages 5-11 in Philadelphia have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 27% are fully vaccinated (City of Philadelphia, 2022). Improved COVID-19 vaccination rates among children will help prevent infection and severe illness among children, control the transmission of COVID-19 and avert the emergence of new variants (CDC, 2022). Community-based
organizations (CBOs) are well-positioned to deliver trusted and accurate messages about the COVID-19 vaccine to parents as they are trusted and influential resources in the communities they serve. However,
there is currently a research gap in understanding the opportunities and challenges experienced by CBOs when communicating information about the COVID-19 vaccine to parents of young children. To help address this research gap, key informant interviews with leaders and staff of CBOs in Philadelphia (n=10-12) will be conducted to identify perceived barriers and facilitators of COVID-19 vaccine uptake among children and to better understand the opportunities and challenges faced when communicating information about the COVID-19 vaccines to parents and guardians in Philadelphia. We will rely on concepts from the Communication Infrastructure Theory (Goulbourne & Yanovitzky, 2021) to develop the interview guide. We will engage with Philly CEAL to recommend leaders and staff members of CBOs in Philadelphia that are part of the community coalition to participate in this study. Findings will help inform future strategies to improve COVID-19 vaccine messaging to parents of children in Philadelphia.


Faculty Mentor: David Lydon-Staley
Assistant Professor of Communication
Principal Investigator, Addiction, Health, & Adolescence (AHA!) Lab
Annenberg School for Communication

Graduate Mentee: Darin Johnson, PhD student in Annenberg

Project Title: A Community Engaged Approach to Studying Discrimination and Health

How does linguistic racism manifest and what are its impacts on the (psychological) well-being of individuals facing this marginalization? How do we center lived experience and local knowledge within community as foundational for answering a question like this? How do we situate our research findings into a broader social context? The communication neuroscience lab seeks a graduate student to co-create infrastructure supporting community based participatory research that investigates multi-modal contributions to health and wellness, including discrimination. During the summer, this graduate student will explore approaches to community engaged research (e.g., citizen science, community science), begin to establish partnerships with key community stakeholders, and engage in dialogue with locally based community organizations (e.g., educational institutions/ non-profits). In addition, the graduate student will conduct preliminary research alongside community stakeholders to lay groundwork for a locally-based, longitudinal study of everyday experiences of discrimination and health- related outcomes. The graduate student will begin to build partnerships with key community stakeholders, and work with these stakeholders to investigate what questions (or information) community organizations have about discrimination and health– what issues in this domain are priorities? Methods of co-creation might include conversations with Netter center colleagues and partners, and potential community partners. These conversations will inform the development of protocols for semi-structured interviews, focus groups, and online surveys. At the end of this internship the graduate student will produce a conceptual framework outlined for a larger-scale, community based participatory research project in partnership with a community organization that explores lived experiences and well being.


Past Projects


Senior Faculty Mentor: Lori Flanagan-Cato
Associate Professor of Psychology
Co-Director of Undergraduate Neuroscience Program
School of Arts & Sciences

Project Title: Community engagement to accelerate high school STEM education in Philadelphia

This project centers on an academically based community service course, Everyday Neuroscience.  The course has the twin goals of 1) improving science literacy at Paul Robeson High School, a public school in West Philadelphia, with engaging, hands-on activities, and 2) providing Penn students with experiential learning in science communication outside the academy.  The project is based on a collaboration between the Flanagan-Cato lab and Robeson High School to conduct evidence-based research on the impact of our courses on both Robeson and Penn students.  Specifically, we will investigate: 1) Does the ABCS course provide academic acceleration for all Robeson students, regardless of previous achievement; 2) Does the ABCS course include an optimal combination of basic biology and neuroscience content.  The data analysis will be focused on previous surveys and focus groups with the Robeson students and information about academic performance.  The results of this analysis will be submitted to education journals, as well as formatted to be shared with the Robeson staff.  Work during the summer will be instrumental in developing a sustainable, high quality database to continue longitudinal studies as the ABCS course evolve in future years. 


Faculty Mentor: Mona Merling
Assistant Professor of Mathematics
School of Arts & Sciences

Project Title: Mathematics enrichment and academically based community service

Math 123 is an academically based community service (ABCS) class which provides Penn students with the opportunity to share their passion for math and enhance their communication skills through designing lessons and teaching at a partner school in West Philadelphia. This class partnered with Robeson High School for the first time in the fall of 2020, and students of Math 123 will continue to work with Robeson students in the coming year. This summer, a graduate student will work on a project which aims to enrich the curriculum for the Math 123 class, as well as develop data analysis tools that will be used to assess the impact of the course on Penn and Robeson students. The curriculum will be designed to prepare the high school students for the state-mandated Keystone exam while still encouraging them to think about mathematics conceptually: investigating, exploring, conjecturing, and problem-solving. We will work with our Robeson partner to organize focus groups with their students, which will (a) help assess the impact of the class on Robeson students’ performance and attitude regarding math and (b) inform the development of the curriculum to best serve the needs of the students and improve their learning experience. We will also work with Dr. Flanagan-Cato and benefit from her expertise with teaching and evaluating a similar, long-standing neuroscience ABCS class. In order to better engage the Robeson students and train the Penn students in effective teaching, we will analyze pedagogical research papers and work to incorporate evidence-based practices of math pedagogy into the ABCS Math 123 class.


Senior Faculty Mentor: John L. Jackson, Jr. 
Walter H. Annenberg Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication
Richard Perry University Professor 

Project Title: Critical Journalism, Social Justice and Community Change

What does it mean to reimagine journalistic practices in Philadelphia in ways that amplify community voices/needs while also combatting misinformation, battling biases in reporting, and helping to create more equitable outcomes for local residents? How could a more accessible, diverse, and egalitarian approach to journalism create more opportunities for transformational cultural and social change? This summer, we will work with Resolve Philly, a non-profit in Philadelphia organized around reimagining journalism as an important step in the goal of improving people’s everyday lives and life chances. Resolve Philly tackles topics/themes such as poverty, incarceration, structural inequality, gun violence, economic mobility and more. Working in collaboration with Resolve Philly and their neighborhood partners, the goal this summer will be to assist them in engaging Philadelphians as they work to find tangible and measurable solutions to social problems by channeling the affordances of journalism and of new/mass mediation more generally. The grad student will spend this summer getting familiar with Resolve and some of its local partners, and based on the student’s interest, we will identify a subject that will serve as the anchor for their summer experience, which could include a variety of activities such as writing in different genres/formats, conducting ethnographic interviews with key stakeholders of various kinds, and even designing methods for gathering important new data that can help empower people to advocate for the needs of their communities.


Faculty Mentor: Andy Tan
Associate Professor of Communication
Director, Health Communication & Equity Lab
Annenberg School for Communication

Project Title: Understanding Barriers and Facilitators of Mental Health First Aid Implementation in Philadelphia

The Health Communication and Equity Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication seeks one graduate research fellow to evaluate Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) implementation in Philadelphia. Between 2012 and 2016, 19,084 Philadelphians received training in MHFA, a skills-based course on how to respond to mental health and substance-use challenges, through Healthy Minds Philly (HMP), a program of the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services (DBHIDS). A 2018 report found that although the numbers of trained individuals increased during this period, behavioral health service utilization, suicide prevention hotline use, and help-seeking among adolescents (trust in adults, sense of belonging, and respected by peers in school) remained unchanged, while drug use and adult mental health challenges increased. MHFA training increases mental health literacy and confidence in intervening in mental health challenges, and is associated with reduced stigma. However, training was not associated with increased treatment seeking in intervention communities, in part due to low rates of using these skills. There is a research gap in understanding reasons for low utilization of MHFA skills following training. We will qualitatively assess MHFA skills implementation, identify barriers and facilitators to use MHFA skills, measure rates of skills renewal, and evaluate MHFA knowledge through focus group discussions among a purposive sample of HMP trainees. We will also conduct key-informant interviews among program stakeholders at DBHIDS and HMP to understand training implementation, current standing, long-term goals, and challenges. Findings from this evaluation will inform future strategies to improve utilization of MHFA.