July 18, 2018

It takes a village to raise a research project

Researchers and administration work together on community-based gang prevention program
Hieu Van Ngo is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Social Work and leader of the Identity-based Wraparound Intervention Project.

Hieu Van Ngo is the leader of the Identity-based Wraparound Intervention Project.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

In 2012, Dr. Hieu Van Ngo, PhD, envisioned a co-ordinated community approach to gang prevention. Family members, teachers, and communities coming together to restore and strengthen the identities of high-risk immigrant youth — Identity-Based Wraparound Intervention (IBWI) would create individual supports for each child, drawing on all available resources to create a network that would steer them out of criminal activity.

But how do you co-ordinate more than 20 service and community agencies, 40 active files at any given time, volunteer mentors, a complex evaluation framework, and other processes from accounting, to ethics applications, to database creation? Ngo, assistant professor in the Faculty of Social Work, quickly learned that it would take a village to raise the project, just like it would take a village to raise up the youth he wanted to help.

“It was a big learning curve, just trying to figure out who is who in the university, and how they can help set up such a complicated project,” he says. “What I credit the university with is that the leadership was signalling that we needed to reconnect with the community, and this is the kind of work that we needed to do more of. The Research Services Office, the Office of the Provost, Dean Jackie Sieppert — everyone came on board to make it work.”

The topic resonated with administrators, and its unique challenges made for a compelling project for keen problem-solvers across campus, from ethics to accounting.

'When people are doing things that are ethically complicated, very often they're trying to do something important'

Before IBWI could begin, Ngo needed to secure ethics approval from the Conjoint Faculties Research Ethics Board (CFREB), which required tailoring his research methods to the vulnerabilities of his participants.

The CFREB and Ngo collaborated and designed the project to achieve its goals without putting participants at risk. Protecting their privacy was paramount, because of their age, immigrant status, and potential involvement in criminal activities.

“We don't want the research to add to a child’s difficulties by creating a way for people who wouldn't otherwise realize this young person was involved with the law, to unnecessarily find that out,” says CFREB board chair Dr. John Ellard, PhD. “Immigrant families also have potential vulnerabilities. Certain kinds of social risks and maybe even legal risks, depending on their immigration status.”

While this process took time and multiple iterations, it led to a robust set of methods that met ethical requirements defined by federal research agencies, while also being manageable for the research team.

“When people are doing things that are ethically complicated, very often they're trying to do something important,” says Ellard. “What Hieu was trying to do was self-evidently worth doing and needed to be supported.”

Going the extra mile to keep a project on track

As the project progressed, this hands-on approach to support continued. Multiple units helped guide the day-to-day of accounting, contracts, data management, and hiring for IBWI.

“Going the extra mile to help researchers out is where our team really steps up with these large projects,” says May Stein, manager of research reporting. “We are the experts in post-award financial compliance, and if there’s anything that we can provide or follow up with instead of sending the researcher to take care of it, we do. We want to make sure that the researchers’ time is used wisely.”

Stein cites communication skills as key to success when tackling complex research projects, and also that all the communication required was what made this work enjoyable. “It was a pleasure to work with Hieu and his team. It was hands-on, and it was really a collaborative effort,” she says.

The great deal of collaboration and co-ordination to get IBWI off the ground may have been daunting at first, but as the project nears its conclusion (officially wrapping up in October), Ngo is grateful to have had the opportunity to take on the myriad of challenges.

“Learning from and working with services across campus was a positive experience that ultimately strengthened the work of IBWI,” Ngo says. “Thanks to their support, we were able to create a program that put supporting youth at the forefront, and focus on their well-being every step of the way.”

The Research Support Fund assists Canadian post-secondary institutions and their affiliated research hospitals and institutes with the expenses associated with managing the research funded by Tri-Council agencies (CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC). The annual grant helps institutions manage the financial demands of the indirect costs of research. By easing the institutional financial burden, the Research Support Fund helps the university create an environment where researchers can focus on their research, collaborate with colleagues, and translate their discoveries and innovations.