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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014

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Stephanie Alleyne

Stephanie Alleyne

Photographer: Pat Oden

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Stephanie Alleyne fights diabetes with online play


When it comes to diabetes research, Barbados native Stephanie Alleyne is all work and a lot of play.

As a second-year graduate student in Ohio University’s Communication and Development Studies program (ComDev), Alleyne’s research centers on a grant proposal to raise awareness about diabetes in children through online games—a cause that Alleyne intends to devote her career to.

According to the Barbados Diabetes Foundation, chronic diseases—including diabetes—now represent the most significant health care problem confronting the English-speaking Caribbean. In Barbados, diabetes currently affects an estimated 25,000 people—a figure that is expected to double by 2020 if present trends, such as unhealthy diets and more sedentary lifestyles, continue.

Alleyne intends to reverse those trends one child at a time. And, she is counting on the power of 21st century technologies and a renewed gaming culture to do just that.

Path to promise

Like many others, Alleyne’s path to Ohio University started with a simple Google search. It was here that she discovered its CommDev program.

“When I saw how interdisciplinary it was, I was really attracted to it,” she recalled. “I applied for a Fulbright scholarship, and I told them I wanted to go to OU. I didn’t choose any other university.”

And she didn’t have to. Alleyne was granted a Fulbright scholarship as well as her first choice university. The trip also marked Alleyne’s first time in Ohio.

Passion with a price

The road to a master’s degree came with a price. To study at Ohio University, Alleyne had to leave her husband and two sons, ages six and 13, in Barbados.

But the work of raising diabetes awareness justifies the sacrifices, said Alleyne.

“(Diabetes) is a growing epidemic, not just here in the U.S. but, of course, in the Caribbean as well, so I’m very passionate about it,” she explained.

Part of her passion stems from the disease’s impact on Alleyne’s family. Both her grandfather and her uncle passed away this past summer due to complications with diabetes. According to Alleyne, this was the impetus that gave her the momentum to pursue research in this area.

Due to its hereditary nature, the disease also holds risks for Alleyne’s children. It is this demographic on which Alleyne’s research focuses, unlike many of the existing outreach efforts.

“A lot of the interventions are geared toward adults, but I think we have to start the right habits from a very young age,” she said. “I think once you have the children on board, you then get the adults to mirror the positive and right behavior.”

Situated for success

Alleyne is well-situated to carry out her research.

Diabetes is one of the key research areas at OHIO’s Edison Biotechnology Institute, due to the disease’s disproportionate affects on the people of Appalachian Ohio.

And when it comes to research and the development of digital game technology, Alleyne has a partner in the University’s Game Research and Immersive Design (GRID) Lab, an initiative of Ohio University's Scripps College of Communication.

In fact, it was GRID Lab Director John Bowditch who first sparked Alleyne’s interest in the use of games as a tool for development communicators. According to Bowditch, games are increasingly being used to disseminate information on various public health issues—from HIV to famine.

“There’s quite a bit of room for using games as a way to help educate people around the world—especially youth—and that’s what really excites me about Stephanie’s project,” said Bowditch, who now serves on Alleyne’s research committee.

Purposeful play

Alleyne’s game is designed for use in school curriculums, but could also be utilized by parents and health professionals. Focused on diabetes prevention and management, Alleyne said it will complement existing diabetes outreach programs in Barbados.

But fun and games are only half of the equation, according to Director of Communication and Development Studies Rafael Obregon.

Though online games are its key outreach vehicle, the project “is a part of an integrated communication strategy that includes collaboration with schools, civil society organizations and health institutions, amongst others,” he noted.

Alleyne spent the early part of her winter break liaising with the Barbados’ Ministry of Health and the Barbados Diabetes Association to get information about their awareness programs.

After graduating, she hopes to build on the existing partnership between Barbados and Ohio University to make her proposal a reality. Ideally, Alleyne added, GRID Lab students could develop the game technology.

“Such collaboration would be tremendously advantageous to Stephanie, but it also could provide Ohio University with an opportunity to add an international dimension to its video game-related work,” said Obregon.

Focus on the future

Though Alleyne plans to wrap up her master’s degree this spring, she is not ruling out the possibility of pursuing a doctorate at Ohio University in the years to come.

“I think OU is a relatively undiscovered gem in the U.S.,” she said. “The campus is gorgeous, and the faculty is outstanding...not to mention the range of academic programs. I have told most of my friends about the school, so maybe we can get more Barbadians coming here to study in later years.”

For now, Alleyne is maintaining her focus on fun, all in the name of diabetes prevention.