SSRC scientists working with groups across campus and the country to make an impact

Scientists calculate the populations in cities, countries, and regions. They assign areas to be rural and metropolitan, but what do we know about the population living on the coasts of our planet? This question is guiding a group of researchers from the Southeastern Universities Research Association—a group that includes SSRC Director Art Cosby.

The study came about through the work of the United States’ Army’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Southeastern Universities Research Association. Cosby is working with researchers from multiple southern schools, who may have interest in the project, looking at data gathered through a technology called Land Scan.

The technology was developed and started in use about 10 years ago and each day the system scans the earth’s surface and calculates the earth’s population. The scans can accurately predict the Earth’s population within one kilometer. Using this information, the team is proposing several research questions and hope to build for future research after they understand the breakdown of populations across coastal areas.

“Over the years as I have completed more research like this, I’ve become more interested in change. I want to look at how things have changed instead of only how they differ now from a certain point in time,” Cosby said.

The researchers are currently using computer programs to breakdown and categorize what is considered a coastal region. They are interested in mapping from certain distances and then making observations from the Land Scan data at those distances.

“The heavy work has been done by Oak Ridge. Countries around the world estimate their population by geographic regions like counties, but Oak Ridge developed an application that makes assumptions like people don’t live on water or steep elevations and applied to the model,” he said.

Cosby believes this research could go on to impact multiple areas not limited to coastal erosion research and coastal economics, further continuing its interdisciplinary impact.

As the team works with researchers from around the Southern United States, another SSRC scientist is crafting the messages for a project centered around the state of Mississippi.

Crafting a Prevention Message for Mississippi

“The language we use matters. Standardizing our messages gives a comfort to the [extension] agents because this is so different from what our agriculture agents, especially, routinely do,” said David Buys, assistant professor in Food Science, Nutrition, and Health Promotion and State Health Specialist with Mississippi State University (MSU) Extension.

The importance of the messaging is why MSU Extension researchers and practitioners brought together expertise from across Mississippi State’s campus to implement the Preventing Opioid Misuse In the SouthEast—or PROMISE—Initiative including SSRC researcher and research fellow Holli Seitz. PROMISE is led by a dedicated team of interdisciplinary researchers, scholars, and scientists working to aid in the prevention of opioid misuse across the state of Mississippi with a special focus on those working in or around agriculture. Seitz is working with the team as the communications specialist utilizing the software and resources from the SSRC Message Laboratory she directs.

The PROMISE Initiative began two years ago when Buys and the MSU Extension office were awarded the first round of funding from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  The project is continuing with funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Buys said that for reporting purposes, they refer to PROMISE 1.0 and 2.0, but the team operates the Initiative as a single effort.

Other departments represented on the team include Animal and Dairy Science and Human Development and Family Sciences.

Early work included community engagement, extension agent education, a social media campaign, and the placement of prescription drug take-back boxes.

“Through all of this work, we realized there is a great need in the agriculture community because they are sometimes at a higher risk of injury or under a greater stress level. Our focus is looking to rural communities and sharing prevention messages with them, and Dr. Seitz is instrumental in developing that messaging,” said Mary Nelson Robertson, PROMISE project coordinator.

Heatmap from eye tracking software used in The Message Laboratory showing where participants looked the most.
The gaze plot shows the order in which a participant looked at a location on the image (signified by the number in the circle at that location) and how much time was spent looking at that location (indicated by the diameter of the circle).

Seitz came on board as part of the team to develop and hone the messages that would be used to reach extension agents and the community. The team developed six key objectives that guide the initiative. Seitz worked to design messages for bookmarks, mailers, and online graphics that are distributed to extension agents and the public.

She has also participated with the team in Mental Health First Aid training and can now serve as a facilitator of the training, which teaches participants how to notice the signs of mental health distress and how to recommend first steps like listening and suggesting the individual consider professional assistance or self-care practices.

“This training has made me more aware of the importance of the language we use. I’m aware of mental health in a more holistic way, and that definitely factors into the way we craft our messages for the campaign. It’s been more beneficial than I first realized in shaping my philosophy as we do message development,” Seitz said.

An additional area of the project that has seen input from Seitz is the connection with Stand Up, Mississippi, an organization that is also working to fight opioid misuse in Mississippi. One of the main goals of the group is dealing with treatment and overcoming an addiction, whereas the PROMISE Initiative strives to proactively prevent misuse. The groups have used cohesive language, and Seitz has crafted messaging that will be used on Stand Up, Mississippi’s website and social media.

“In addition to building collaborations across campus, we quickly realized that to be as effective as possible, we also needed to work outside of the academic realm,” explained Buys. “These state agencies like the Department of Mental Health and Stand Up, Mississippi are doing some aspects of the implementation work as we do the background research.”

In the Message Laboratory, Seitz conducted formative research to understand the wording and images that key audiences responded to best. The messages have been placed in the field by extension agents across the state, and they will additionally be highlighted in key counties where project staff will spend time on the other key component of the initiative: take-back boxes.

Prescription take-back boxes are found in law enforcement agencies or some pharmacies and they are a safe, free way for community members to dispose unused medications. The initiative has spent time and messaging on encouraging communities to utilize take-back boxes for medications that they no longer need.

Heatmap from eye tracking software used in The Message Laboratory showing where participants looked the most.
The heat map aggregates eye-tracking data from all participants to show where they looked and for how long. Red signifies the areas that received the most attention and green the least.

“Essentially with these take-back boxes, that look like large mailboxes inside the pharmacy, individuals can drop off medications they no longer need. We’ve designed a mailer to go out to multiple counties in the state to help people learn about their local locations and encourage the use of the boxes,” said Robertson.  “Our formative research showed that people aren’t sure where to return medicine, so we want to increase that knowledge and the number of people using the boxes.”

Seitz will begin a second round of research on her messaging this year, and this time she will utilize eye-tracking software in the laboratory to identify where participants’ eyes are drawn in the message or graphic to better shape the final messages.

“In this phase, we have completed an online survey of Mississippi residents, and now with the eye-tracking software, we will be testing our drafted messages to see which of those will be used for social media, websites, and other outlets,” Seitz said.

Seitz’s work is only one piece of the greater project that Extension hopes is making an impact across the state in the agriculture community and to many others that they contact.

“My skills really complemented their skills. I could bring in the communications piece and add to the work they were already doing,” Seitz said.

“Bringing all of these experts together amplifies who we can reach. Not only are we touching individuals, but the communities and families. It makes a stronger project to have the different backgrounds coming together,” Robertson said.

Collaborating with a Center for Excellence

Another scientist from the SSRC has a long history in the work of a greater consortium. Robert McMillen, a professor and lead researcher on several projects, is an active member of the Julius B. Richmond Center of Excellence, a group of researchers from across the country that convene through funding from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The group studies differing effects of tobacco use and smoking near children. McMillen specifically contributes to the group by collecting research on the social reaction to tobacco use that the Tobacco Control Unit at the SSRC has studied and surveyed for years and working with other survey data to answer the group’s research questions.

“We work directly with pediatricians and also advocate and lobby at multiple levels. At the federal level, members of the group have testified to the FDA and congress. Then at the local level, if there’s a pediatrician that advocates for a smoke-free ordinance, there’s a good chance the alderman and officials of that town have children who see that doctor, so the message resonates. We publish and advocate for system changes in clinics and policy changes, but we also generate a lot of academic research,” said McMillen of the group that was formed in 2006.

McMillen cites one of the strengths of the group being the diverse backgrounds that they come from. Practitioners from Johns Hopkins University, scholars from Ohio State University and Dartmouth, with backgrounds in the biology and social aspects have allowed the group to be recognized by congressional and judicial leaders as well as prominent academic circles.

“Almost all of the group are pediatricians except for a few like myself and a couple of lawyers and clinical psychologists, but we all have academic appointments, so we are expected to produce research. We found that smoking parents actually expect or want to be counseled by their child’s pediatrician.  We published some of the first articles on the use of e-cigarettes particularly the overwhelming use of e-cigarettes by minors,” McMillen said.

The group has continued to keep up with the trends in the field submitting new research questions for study each year to the Academy of Pediatrics and is recognized across government and media as being the experts of their study.

“It’s been a very productive group with regard to having an impact on public conciseness and policy. It’s been a fun group to be a part of because of that impact and being a part of the discussion for change,” McMillen said.

An underlying theme of the research at the SSRC is its connection to other institutions, and each of these researchers as well as the multiple others emphasize the strength and depth added to their research by working with colleagues outside of their organizations.

“One of the strengths of the SSRC is that interdisciplinary and interinstitutional work really is an asset. It’s good to get out of your own department and that brings exposure for our work to be connected to national organizations,” McMillen said.

Graphic showing tobacco use in Mississippi


For more information on PROMISE, visit

Visit to learn more about tobacco usage in Mississippi.

MTD graphics provided by MTD designer Miranda Robertson.

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