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Following the Leader

In academia as in families, the acorn does not fall far from the tree. Certainly that's the case with Piyumika Kularatne, a doctoral student in health education whose advisor is Professor John Allegrante.

Like Allegrante, Kularatne-'"who also holds a master's degree in public health from Columbia-'"is committed to educating the public about the benefits of good preventive health care. So much so, in fact, that - though still a grad student - she received, in July 2005, a two-year, $75,000 grant from the American Heart Association to assess health literacy in low-income Hispanic and African-American adult smokers and determine whether health information that's tailored to their literacy levels and cultural needs will help them stop smoking.

"My dad was a physician and a smoker who died of heart disease when my mom was four months pregnant with me," Kularatne says. "That's why I'm doing this."

Kularatne, who works as a division administrator at Columbia's College of Dental Medicine, is recruiting subjects from the neighboring Inwood and Washington Heights area of upper Manhattan who use the school's dental clinic. As the first phase of her project - which also will form the nucleus of her TC dissertation - she is doing a needs assessment of the population she's studying. In part that means learning how much patients know about managing their own health and communicating with doctors, and in part it means figuring out the best strategies for communicating with patients through written materials.

"Most written health materials that are in use today aren't well tailored to specific audiences, so we want to be sure to get that right," she says.

The second phase of the project will consist of a randomized trial that compares health outcomes between a group of patients that receives the tailored intervention about smoking cessation and preventive care and another that receives the standard material.

"Right now there's still not a lot of research showing a causal relationship between health literacy and better health outcomes," Kularatne says. "Hopefully this study will add to that base and to knowledge about the most effective kinds of interventions."

Kularatne credits Allegrante with being "an exceptional mentor" who has encouraged her to strive for a higher standard and compete against established M.D.'s and Ph.D.'s for grant money.

"It's important for other doctoral students to know they can go out and do this," she says. "It's not easy, but even if you get turned down, it's a tremendous learning process."

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