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Where there’s smoke — Geri Dino

smiling woman, short hair

Geri Dino has spent her career at WVU's School of Public Health earning competitive funding for a teen smoking cessation program that went national, helping communities discover their own solutions to their unique health issues and disparities and developing a statewide youth advisory board that is building connections across the country.

Geri Dino is the director of WVU’s Prevention Research Center. Competitively funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the WVPRC and Dino have been involved in work “near and dear to her heart” for almost 25 years. Clearly not risk averse, Dino left a tenure-track job, took a salary cut and came to WVU “to do something different” in 1995. That something was to address tobacco use, particularly with youth. A trained psychologist, she had never done research in tobacco use, never worked in public health community engagement. She freely admits there was lots she didn’t know.

“What I did know was what I wanted to do at that point in my life was make a difference,” she said. “And I wanted to work with clinicians, I wanted to work with communities and I wanted to help build multi-stakeholder collaborative teams to address really critical issues. Tobacco use was a major health disparity in West Virginia in the 1990s; it still is.”

If it wasn’t her expertise that made the hiring committee take a chance on her, perhaps it was Dino’s passion and her energy — or maybe it was her clear desire to make a difference in a world relatively unknown to her. Whatever stars aligned to bring Dino to WVU, they’ve continued to deliver. Through the WVPRC’s relationship with the CDC, Dino was connected to the American Lung Association, which was developing a new national teen smoking cessation program. With CDC and other funding, Dino, her colleagues and other partners developed the national program Not-On-Tobacco.

The American Lung Association stopped sharing the number of youths who were using the program at 300,000; no center in the country had the reach of an intervention program that West Virginia had, she continued.

“Through these programs it became the most widely-researched and widely-disseminated program in the country,” Dino said. “So here we are. We come into a network of really high-powered centers like Harvard, Yale, the University of North Carolina, and along comes WVU on an earmark to earn national recognition.”

Not-On-Tobacco earned the WVPRC the CDC’s first award for research innovation within the national Prevention Research Centers program. Still going today, the teen smoking cessation program also offers an online version.

She is quick to point out the WVPRC’s work is a team effort and her team worked with teachers and principals, interviewing students, all the stakeholders they needed to work with to develop and test an effective teen smoking cessation program to reduce tobacco use among young people. Increasing physical activity was among the approaches they used to change behaviors.

The end of the millennium was a turning point for Dino, as she became the WVPRC’s principal investigator and director, leading it through four 5-year cycles of competitive funding. Today, the WVPRC, like the others of its kind in the CDC network, partner with communities, helping them to identify their health priorities and disparities, then develop innovative and practical approaches to address them. The ground-level up system works.

Today, her efforts address substance use, promoting healthy lifestyles and fostering youth and community engagement, especially related to youth mental health.

“The end goal of community-engaged research is to empower communities to take charge of their health; it’s about social justice,” she said. “It’s about reducing health disparities; it’s about improving health equity and West Virginia is at the very bottom of the barrel in so many health indicators, so it’s a great place to do community-engaged research.”

The Prevention Research Center is now focused on behaviors more immediately deadly than tobacco use and, again, with CDC funding. Integrated Community Engagement mirrors the teen tobacco cessation program in that it is community solution-based, but its thrust is to change the social environment of two West Virginia counties, one deep in the coalfields, the other a burgeoning tourist destination. Led by Dr. Alfgier Kristjansson, ICE will use the data collected to report on annual rates of substance use, risk and protective factors in comparison with both the past and with other participating communities.

The next step is to reduce the known risk factors in constant back-and-forth conversation with the community as it works its way through possible solutions to a seemingly never-ending problem that has consumed many a West Virginia county, community and family.

“They get to see what works, maybe what didn’t, then they can change things,” Dino said. “They get to see what strategies were likely to be effective, so they can continue them or they can modify them.”

Another of Dino’s latest projects is developing a statewide youth advisory board, where participants provide input, and have the opportunity to have a mentor. These mostly rural West Virginia youth have partner boards in Colorado for mental health issues and with the Johns Hopkins University youth advisory board where they share perspectives, ideas and ways they might collaborate. So far, they’ve only met via Zoom, but plans are in the works to have these boards meet in person, expanding their opportunities to discover the things they have in common.

“We silo people by urban and rural and race and ethnicity, but there are so many common elements and so many things we can learn from each other,” Dino said. “Our approach is to break down the silos to do things differently to engage communities to be innovative.”