North Carolina congressional staffers from across the state were welcomed to campus recently for Duke’s State and District Congressional Staff Day.

Hosted for the first time since 2019, the traditional biennial gathering helps showcase Duke University and Duke Health experts and programs impacting North Carolinians to staff serving our state’s congressional delegation. With a community of over 45,000 employees, Duke is the largest homegrown private employer, and second largest private employer overall in the state.

Vice President of Government Relations Chris Simmons and Executive Vice President and COO for Duke’s Health System, Dr. Tom Owens, provided an overview of how Duke University and Duke Health can work with congressional leaders to serve as resources as they work for the citizens of North Carolina.

Staffers asked thoughtful questions about Duke’s new tuition aid initiative for North and South Carolina students, as well as the current state of other timely higher education issues.

Following the overview kickoff, staffers spent time with several researchers from across campus, with a particular focus on the Climate Commitment and the value of federal research funding.

As this summer was one of the warmest on record, staff engaged in a timely discussion on the impact and mitigation of extreme heat and heat-related illness across North Carolina.

This conversation was navigated by Ashley Ward of Duke’s new Heat Policy Innovation Hub and Jason Zivica, assistant vice president for Duke Health System’s Hospital Operations. Ward’s previous work with NOAA’s Carolinas Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) team connected rural and urban communities and policy-decision makers with relevant climate and health data, particularly related to vulnerabilities and impacts. Zivica helped play a role in developing Duke’s Emergency Operations Plan, which has served as a blueprint model nationwide.

They discussed what has driven heat to become so impactful over the last 30 years and the misconceptions surrounding the dangers of heat.

“Everyone is vulnerable to heat, this is a really hard message to get across to a region that is used to heat.”

Ashley ward

Additionally, Ward and Zivica highlighted what Duke and Duke Health have done to become leaders in the field surrounding future mitigation of heat’s impacts both on health and on the environment.

“Our role is education, so our role is getting out to our patients ahead of time no matter what the disaster is, but we be a part of that [education] and say ‘Hey it’s going to be hot here’s what you need to know about your condition and what you need to do to take care of yourself and here’s where you can seek help.’ I think it’s partnering with our local emergency managers, Durham County has an emergency management office that we partner with all the time and they are great.’”

Jason Zivica

Following this panel, attendees traveled to Duke’s Puppy Kindergarten, where staffers learned about the study, supported by the National Institutes of Health, to assess the impact of different rearing strategies on the behavior and cognitive development of assistance dogs. The goal is to help increase the pipeline of service dogs in the country.

The program is a key example of why congressional support for organizations like the NIH is crucial for important research and innovation.

After lunchtime conversations with President Vincent Price and Student Government President Isaiah Hamilton, attendees ventured over to Duke Health for the next panel on addressing the connection between environment and health disparities.

The conversation featured Professor Devon Noonan, PhD,  Dorothy L. Powell Term Chair of Nursing. Noonan’s research is focused on using community-engaged approaches to develop innovative health behavior change interventions, including digital interventions, with the goal of reducing risk for chronic diseases including cancer and cardiovascular disease. Joining Noonan was Professor Norbert Wilson, PhD, director of the World Food Policy Center and faculty appointed to both the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Duke Divinity School. Wilson’s research touches on several food issues, such as access, choice, and food waste.

Duke’s Nursing School and Divinity School have one of the widest statewide reaches in terms of programming and alumni. As more extreme weather events happen, Noonan said the impacts she sees on North Carolina citizens, specifically rural communities, include higher rates of chronic illness such as stroke and hypertension.

“We know all of those are related really to structural causes so unjust distribution of resources in communities around food, healthcare, education, jobs, ability to be mobile in the community and so we see really high social needs: food security, transportation security, housing instability. So when I think of these climate events, that is the crux of the issue.

Devon Noonan

Wilson said in his field of work food security is important because it relates closely to the food and agriculture system. If that system is under stress, like it has been in recent years with inflation, when food prices rise people struggle with their food security.

Noonan and Wilson also highlighted how Duke is playing a role in mitigating these issues to hopefully find a solution in the future.

“The Divinity School is I think in an innovative place right now. We’re working with the Nicholas School of the Environment and a group that hosts a series of workshops—we’ve been hosting them at the Marine Lab—where we’re training clergy and lay leaders to address climate issues within their congregations. We’ve had a pretty strong participation the last two years and we’re looking forward to do that again. And I think this is an important thing where we realize there are interesting tensions when we talk about climate, where especially when we talk about our students, they’re really deeply concerned about the climate.”

Norbert Wilson

The day wrapped up with a discussion and tour of some of Duke Health’s sustainability practices featuring Monte Brown, MD, vice president of administration and secretary, Duke University Health System; associate dean of veterans affairs, Duke University School of Medicine.

2023 State and District Congressional Staff Day was overall a marked success. We are grateful for the participation of our Duke and Duke Health faculty and staff, who shared their knowledge and expertise about the impact the Duke community is having on important topics in our state. Additionally, we are grateful our state and district staff day for their comments, participation and partnerships. We look forward to our next State and District Congressional Staff Day.