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Abby King awarded Roland Volunteer Service Prize

The Miriam Aaron Roland Volunteer Service Prize recognizes Stanford faculty who engage students in integrating academic scholarship with significant volunteer service to society.

Abby C. King, professor and vice chair for academic affairs of epidemiology and population health and professor of medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine, is the 2022 Miriam Aaron Roland Volunteer Service Prize recipient.

Abby C. King

Professor Abby C. King will receive the 2022 Miriam Aaron Roland Volunteer Service Prize for her work to engage students in using communication technologies and community-based participatory research to improve health inequities. (Image credit: Peggy Propp)

King was selected for her work to provide community members with accessible tools and resources to improve public health across diverse areas and locales. She is the founder and faculty director of the Our Voice Citizen Science Research Initiative and Global Network, which empowers individuals to collect data and advocate for change in their communities using a mobile app combined with participatory action methods.

Each year, the Roland Prize recognizes a faculty member who involves students in integrating academic scholarship with significant public service contributions. It was established at the Haas Center for Public Service in 2004 with a gift by Miriam Aaron Roland, ’51. Provost Persis Drell will present the award at an event with the Community Partnership Awards on March 4.

King’s research focuses on the development, evaluation and translation of public health interventions to reduce chronic disease and its key behavioral risk factors. Through communication technologies and community-based participatory research, she has worked to improve health inequities among underserved communities.

Her desire to concentrate on health began as a graduate student in clinical psychology at Virginia Tech, where she was introduced to the idea of behavioral medicine from a group of health-oriented faculty who, rather than concentrating on one-to-one care after problems arose, was researching the impact of prevention on a larger scale.

For the last 30 years, King has been at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, one of the few places that were researching cardiovascular disease prevention approaches at the community level before chronic disease preventative measures at that level were widespread.

The establishment of the Our Voice Citizen Science Initiative grew out of King’s interest in assessing health needs in underserved neighborhoods. She worked with a group of postdoctoral fellows – Matthew Buman, Sandra Winter and Eric Hekler – to create the Discovery Tool app, a GPS-powered online assessment tool designed for use by virtually anyone, regardless of their comfort with technology. Residents use the app to record those aspects of their community that either support or create challenges to healthy living across different categories and issues. The data are then shared with community members, who use them to build consensus around high-priority issues and then advocate for tangible changes.

The Our Voice initiative started in a senior affordable housing site in East Palo Alto, where residents were taught how to collect and share data aimed at increasing physical activity and healthy eating. It resulted, among other things, in improved infrastructure for walking and the creation of a vegetable garden near the housing site.

Since then, Our Voice has grown in impact and scope. In partnership with Stanford Medicine’s Technology and Digital Solutions group, the Discovery Tool app is translated into 13 languages and has been used by people from ages 9 to 95 in more than 80 Our Voice projects across the Bay Area, nationally and in over 20 different countries. The Our Voice method has been used to make Pike Place Market in Seattle more accessible for older adults, improve walkability in a North Fair Oaks community and establish age-friendly walking paths in Israel, among many other impacts from the thousands of completed data collection walks.

Dozens of students at all levels of training have contributed to these projects locally, as well as globally. In fact, school-aged youth from Glasgow, Scotland who used the Our Voice Discovery tool app and method were selected for a UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) award. Their project video will be made into a short film that will be shown as part of the main program for the World Water Day@Dynamic Earth meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Ann Banchoff, director of community engagement for Our Voice, wrote in a letter nominating King for the Roland Prize, “For more than a decade, Dr. King has ‘walked the talk’ of her passions, directly integrating academic scholarship with meaningful community service. She has done so by providing steadfast leadership for the Our Voice initiative, which offers community members of all ages – especially those in low-income communities – accessible tools and resources to become ‘citizen scientists’ and learn how to use their own data to advocate for meaningful and impactful change in their own local environments.”

What makes this project special, King says, is seeing people get newly engaged in science and having their voices heard.

“For me, it’s really combining science with service,” she says. “And that’s why this award means so much to us. Because we firmly believe that to really make a change in the world, you need to connect both of those things. Our Voice is the embodiment of combining science with service so that everyone benefits.”

Rhonda McClinton-Brown, branch director of healthy communities in the County of Santa Clara Public Health Department, noted in her nomination letter for King that this is the strength of the Our Voice initiative: “Having spent most of my career on the community side of community-academic partnerships, I can say that this commitment to local self-determination is rare and very welcome from an academic partner. … As a public health practitioner, I hold up the Our Voice program as the golden example of how homegrown research and data can help to build local capacity and make neighborhoods and communities safer and more healthy places in sustainable ways.”

King has also received numerous awards for her work, including the Outstanding Scientific Contributions in Health Psychology Award from the American Psychological Association. She was one of 10 U.S. scientists honored by the Association of American Medical Colleges in 2014 for outstanding research targeting health inequities. King has served on various government taskforces in the United States and abroad, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Scientific Advisory Committee on National Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Objectives for 2020.

King is committed to helping the next generation of researchers learn about meaningful community partnerships and supporting the aspirations of students who want to serve their communities. The Citizen Science Theory to Practice course is one way she has been able to do that, teaching students how to collect and apply data to drive local change using the Our Voice model.

Zakaria Doueiri, ’23, an undergraduate who joined Our Voice in the summer of 2021 as a Human Biology Research Exploration student, says of working with Dr. King, “Not only has she exposed me to other community-based research approaches and motivated me to think critically about developments in study designs, but she has also given me the opportunity to do fieldwork in underserved communities.”

King says that one key way students have had an impact on Our Voice is by generating ideas for ways to utilize new technology in the program, such as through using augmented reality to visualize the effects of potential projects, as Doueiri is doing currently.

Kane Zha, ’20, who met King as an intern for the Human Biology Research Exploration program and later joined the Our Voice program, said in her nomination letter, “Dr. King and her team’s mentorship taught me the importance of leveraging my privilege as a researcher in an academic institution to center the voices of community members and ensure that any research conducted directly serves their interests.”

Reflecting on her selection for the Roland Prize award, King said, “I am humbled and honored to win it, and looking at all my incredible colleagues who have won it before, I really feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.” But she does not see this as an award for herself alone, saying, “For me, I would love it if I could put everyone’s name on that award. I really see this as an award for my team.”

Provost Persis Drell will present the Roland Prize, and Vice Provost for Institutional Equity, Access and Community Patrick Dunkley will present the 2022 Community Partnership Awards at a private luncheon on March 4. This year, the allcove Integrated Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Programs, Avenidas-Stanford Elder Care Partnership and Promotoras de Salud Community of Practice will receive Community Partnership Awards.

Gabriella Herrera is the communications associate at the Haas Center for Public Service.