A spark worth igniting: How two MSU social scientists united in the fight against violence

January 7, 2022 - Liz Schondelmayer

Each of us has something we are passionate about, as well as the capacity to create meaningful change as individuals - but when we connect with like-minded people who share our convictions and drive to make a difference, that's when the magic is amplified. 

For proof, take Spark Research for Social Change (or SPARK4Change), a lab in the Michigan State University School of Social Work led by researchers Dr. Heather McCauley (left) and Dr. Joanne Smith-Darden (right). The two met in 2019, when Dr. McCauley transferred to the School of Social Work from her previous role in Human Development and Family Studies, and Dr. Smith-Darden joined MSU’s faculty after spending 10 years at Wayne State University. 

From their first meeting, the two discovered that despite their differences in expertise and experience, they shared a common goal of transforming the world into a safer and more just place through team science. The name of their lab represents the spark that was re-ignited by their shared passion for research advancing social justice and violence prevention. 

As the lab's website reads: "We are on fire with purpose and passion to end violence in all its forms."

From the beginning, the researchers faced some significant hurdles in fully realizing their vision: less than a year into their endeavor, the COVID-19 pandemic made conducting collaborative, community-engaged research extremely difficult. Additionally, Smith-Darden faced a cancer diagnosis in early 2021 - but even that wasn't enough to stop this duo. 

After Smith-Darden's diagnosis, McCauley accompanied her to her doctor's appointments and a chemotherapy infusion, where they wrote a CDC proposal that was ultimately funded. Smith-Darden credits McCauley and the entire Spark4Change lab with part of her recovery, noting that their support helped her to “keep [her] brain busy” and focus on affecting positive change. 

The lab continued to persist and grow, and is now securing competitive grants to fund transformative research across the state and country.

"As violence researchers, we study what is for many, the most difficult parts of the human experience. Our work is humbling, incredible -- and hard. We both landed in the MSU School of Social Work at the same time and when we met, our chemistry was obvious," McCauley reflected. "We shared similar values, passion, and commitment. We both held a similar vision for the future of violence prevention."

Dr. Smith-Darden explained, "Our team's approach centers on collaboration, not competition, which in turn, multiplies opportunities and strengthens our ability to make an impact. We are so proud of the team we built, as it spans training levels, disciplines, and institutions. Our team explores trauma-informed practice, discusses issues of equity and justice, and brings these perspectives to the seven federally funded studies currently in SPARK's portfolio."

Research with real-life results 

Spark4Change has been extremely successful in publishing and securing federal awards for transformative research surrounding violence prevention in various contexts, with a focus on marginalized and minoritized populations.  

Most recently, McCauley and Smith-Darden were awardeda $1.6 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention  to work with the Traverse Bay Children's Advocacy Center on research to prevent child sexual abuse. The project, titled "The Public Will Campaign: Shifting Social Norms to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse," will embrace a social norms approach to violence prevention via  a series of media campaigns, community events, and survey research to promote the rights and safety of children in northern Michigan.  

Dr. Smith-Darden, in collaboration with researchers from Wayne State University, also received a $2.5 million grant from the CDC for a project called "​Creating Protective Environments Through School Policy Development." Together with McCauley and  the Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health, the research team is working to identify and inform best policy practices that Michigan middle and high schools can use to protect students from sexual violence and harassment, teen dating violence, and bullying.

Joining McCauley and Smith-Darden in the lab are student researchers from the School of Social Work, the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and the College of Natural Sciences, as well as students from multiple universities across the country. Students are highly valued and play an integral role in each of the lab's research projects.

"When my field coordinator through my social work program mentioned SPARK and the work they were doing, I knew instantly that this was the team I wanted to join," said MSU student researcher Carson Biederman. 

"As a student especially interested in education policy, research, and mental health awareness, SPARK really encompassed all of my passions. The work SPARK is doing is incredibly important to me, and I was thrilled to be joining a team that has already made such an impact."

In the upcoming year, Spark4Change is shifting their efforts west, working with community partners Safe Haven Ministries and the Grand Rapids Public Library system in Grand Rapids, Michigan on the innovative Gender Equity Reading Initiative (GERI) program. This initiative that is funded by the State of Michigan's CDC Rape Prevention & Education (RPE) program,  provides a curated set of developmentally-tailored books for children and youth promoting themes of consent, equity, and violence prevention. 

"In 2022, GERI will be implemented in the Grand Rapids Public Library system and SPARK4Change will be evaluating the program to build the evidence base and develop a foundation for long-term sustainability," explained McCauley and Smith-Darden. 

"Not only are we inspired as prevention scientists by a program that uses literature to shape social norms, this partnership is particularly exciting because of the unique role libraries play as gathering places for communities."

Learn more about the Spark4Change lab and their research here.

Spark logohttps://socialscience.msu.edu/_assets/images/spark.PNG