CTSA Profile: Finding and Filling the Research Needs of a Community

Pamela Maxson, director of operations, Center for Community and Population Health Improvement

January 1, 2016

Pamela Maxson is on her third decade and her third position at Duke: Her first Duke job was teaching for the Psychology Department, which she did for 17 years. During her second decade at Duke, she was also director of research for a program in the Nicholas School of the Environment. As she moves into her third decade at Duke, she is now the director of operations for the newly created Center for Community and Population Health Improvement. “I’m excited about fostering Duke’s engagement with the community to improve health of Durham County and helping to create research-ready communities, and community-ready researchers,” she says.

Here, in her own words, Maxson talks about how facilitating research has shaped her career.


How long have you been at Duke?

I came to Duke as a post-doc at the Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development in 1994. Starting in 1996 I taught human development classes to sophomores at Duke, and then in 2006 I became the director of research for the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative at the Nicholas School of the Environment. Since April 1, 2015, I’ve been the director of operations for the newly created Center for Community and Population Health Improvement.

What moved your career from teaching to administration?

Mostly serendipity and hard work. I’ve always liked building, creating, and facilitating ideas. The common thread between teaching and administering is that I enjoy helping other people’s ideas come to fruition.

Tell us about the Center for Community and Population Health Improvement.

Duke created this multi-disciplinary center in 2015 under the leadership of Dr. Ebony Boulware to bring together Duke’s population health efforts, with a focus on health improvement. The Center focuses on decreasing health inequities by working with communities to understand how to sustain improvements in community and population health. It is incorporating and building on Duke’s successes with programs such as the MURDOCK study in Kannapolis, the Durham Health Innovations program, and the Southeastern Diabetes Initiative, where Duke has worked closely with communities to involve them in research. The Center leverages integrated health system data (such as electronic health records) and other public data sources along with robust community engagement to inform community and population health priorities. These resources also provide a platform for rigorous clinical studies and program implementation. The Center is partially supported by the School of Medicine and by Duke’s Clinical and Translational Science Award (Duke CTSA), and has already received a grant from the national Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Initiative (PCORI) to advance community engagement in the research landscape.

What is a normal work day like for you?

As a director of operations, there is no normal day. But in general, I spend my time thinking strategically, making connections, building relationships, planning, figuring out deliverables, working on budgets, writing grants, and doing whatever else needs to be done to keep things moving forward.

What routines do you follow to take care of yourself?

I get up at 4 a.m. every day and spend my first two hours doing something just for myself. I read a lot of professional and personal development books. Last year I wrote my daughter a book. I worked on it for eight months and finished it in time to give it to her for her high school graduation. Writing the book made me realize that if I do a bit of something each day, I can accomplish almost anything.

What book has made a difference in your life?

I once read a book called “Eat that Frog” by Brian Tracy. His basic idea is you should accomplish the most important task (eating a frog) first thing in the morning, and the rest of the day will go smoothly because you won’t worry about the task all day. To remind me to do those important tasks first, I bought a little frog magnet that I keep on my desk at home.

What is something many people don’t know about you?

I homeschooled my three children – Brayton (22), Ben (20) and Amanda (18) – until I started full time work at the Nicholas School in 2006. We all loved the attitude of discovery homeschooling fostered. We did formal lessons, but we also did lots of nature walks and visiting places. The benefit that I didn’t predict is that my kids learned how to get along with people of all types and all ages. We’d go to a playground or a store or a museum, and they’d talk to young kids, elderly people, teenagers – people of all ages. They saw the value in all people.

What excites you about working for the Center for Community and Population Health Improvement?

I have lived in Durham for over 20 years, and I am deeply committed to doing what I can to improve the health of my community. Developing and creating the Center is exciting, and I have the privilege of working with wonderful people, both at Duke and out in the community. We are poised to do great work in collaboration with the health system, researchers, patients, and community.

I love the idea of bringing together the community, patients, the health system, and the researchers at the beginning of a project. I’m especially excited about our PCORI grant, a two-year award to facilitate bringing these stakeholders together to create a five-year health research agenda in Durham County. During the first year, we will host an introductory colloquium and four workshops around topics important to all stakeholders. The second year will include four more workshops and a closing colloquium, which will involve the unveiling of a collaboratively developed 5-year research agenda.

We know that academia needs to learn from the community as well as the community learning from academia. We are figuring out what it will take to have a community-ready research team and a research-ready community team, where everyone can understand the issues involved on both sides and can agree on priorities.