Dr. Heather Bittner Fagan steps down at the end of June.
“When ACCEL first started reaching out to the community and saying, ‘Come help us,’ I felt like we were having a party where we didn’t buy enough potato chips,” said Heather Bittner Fagan, Delaware Clinical and Translational Research Community Engagement and Outreach Core Lead. “The community was eager to come in and we didn’t always know exactly how to engage and often did not have a researcher with matched interests. Over time, ACCEL and the community learned together how to do this important work. I knew we were doing something great when everybody in ACCEL began to say that community engagement is central to what we do. The voice of the community brings meaning to our work and by responding to that voice, ACCEL and the team of people in community engagement and outreach brought about a culture change.”
At the end of June, Heather Bittner Fagan, MD, MPH, FAAFP, will be stepping down as the Community Engagement and Outreach Core Lead for the Delaware Clinical and Translational Research ACCEL Program. In addition to her ACCEL duties, she is a practicing physician, faculty member and researcher in Family and Community Medicine at ChristianaCare. Since 2020, Dr. Fagan has been an associate professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Dr. Fagan has been with ACCEL since the planning process to become a CTR program began almost a decade ago.
Prior to becoming CEO Core Lead, Dr. Fagan was involved in the CEO Core helping researchers connect with physicians and physician practices as well as designing and implementing the ACCEL Community Engagement (ACE) Curriculum. Dr. Fagan’s experience engaging physicians, practices and patients in research and working with the community provided the background experience to work with both researchers and community members and organizations.
“I am very proud of my ACCEL story which begins when we were just ‘ideas on paper’ and leads to this moment where we have created a culture where the voice of the community truly matters,” Dr. Fagan wrote in an email detailing her resignation to her ACCEL colleagues.
During her successful 4-year tenure, Dr. Fagan has not only seen the culture shift toward community engagement at the forefront of ACCEL’s purpose, but she’s also been vital in determining what community engagement means and looks like for ACCEL.
“How to facilitate clinical and translational research is in of itself unclear and challenging, and then throw in there that we’re going to engage the community in our research and plenty of very smart people will acknowledge that it is a great idea but still be asking ‘how do we actually do it?’” she explained. “I’m pretty proud of our team for being able to put some structure and function around these ideas that is felt and recognized within the community, researchers, leadership and our funders.”
Marlene A. Saunders, DSW, MSW, LMSW, has worked closely with Dr. Fagan over the years as the ACCEL Program Community Advisory Council Chairperson – an integral part of the CEO Core. Upon hearing of Dr. Fagan’s resignation, Dr. Saunders wrote a glorifying letter to ACCEL’s leadership acknowledging Dr. Fagan’s accomplishments and work in ensuring the community is a priority at ACCEL.
Dr. Saunders wrote that Dr. Fagan’s unique style of leadership includes “genuinely listening and giving way to new ideas which are not always easy to integrate in the field of research.” In addition, Dr. Saunders explained how Dr. Fagan not only added a toxic pollution item to the CEO health needs agenda at the request of the community, but how she also “took another significant step to change the project’s culture” by designating a member of the community as the proposal’s co-principal investigator. Ultimately, that project culminated in the recent community research retreat, “Health Impacts of Toxic Pollution: Developing Community-Engaged Research.”
“This event certainly does represent a major milestone in the transformation of the DE-CTR ACCEL culture and, in addition, provides another justification for regarding the project as a developing model for planning and implementing legitimate community engaged research,” Dr. Saunders wrote. “As the project continues to move closer to super excellence, I am proud to say the CEO component owes much to Dr. Heather Bittner Fagan.”
At a different research retreat in recent years where members of the ACCEL External Advisory Committee attended, Dr. Fagan said she was granted the defining moment of her work with the CEO Core: Upon introducing herself to a fellow researcher, “He responded, ‘Yeah, I know you! You’re the one who fixed community engagement.’ Like I made it happen!”
Dr. Fagan is certain she will remain involved in ACCEL after her resignation June 30 in several capacities. She will still be aiding Dr. Lee Pachter in his transition into the CEO Core Lead. In addition, as the ACCEL Program gears up for its resubmission in the fall to the National Institute of Health (NIH), she hopes to provide some conceptual input on how ACCEL can be made “bigger, brighter and better.”
Even though she won’t be in an official capacity moving forward, ACCEL and the CEO Core have been a large part of Dr. Fagan’s career and will continue to be – as such, she still has high hopes and expectations for the program.
“I hope that they can strengthen the current relationships with the community and extend those relationships deeper into the community in a way that really lets us do impactful research,” Dr. Fagan said. “Maintaining those connections with the community so we can understand as issues come up that matter to them and that we can figure out as much as possible how to be responsive.”
And that is exactly what Dr. Pachter has in mind for the CEO Core moving forward: building on the strong foundation Dr. Fagan built. He hopes to spread awareness of ACCEL to more Delaware communities and further the education of researchers on the importance of the community voice to ensure their research addresses actual community issues.
During the time that she was the core lead, Community Engagement and Outreach has really expanded to be of central importance to ACCEL,” Dr. Pachter said. “And it was in no small part due to her advocacy of really including community engagement in all aspects of ACCEL and biomedical research in Delaware.”
After so many years with ACCEL in various CEO capacities, Dr. Fagan said she will miss the regular connections with the communities and ACCEL institutions.
“I’ve really been able to create meaningful collegial relationships with people that aren’t from my institution and aren’t family doctors, and I will miss that! And, I will still have those relationships, but they won’t be part of my every day. I still want to be someone that they can text or call me, and I want all my colleagues to know that our relationship is real and will persist.”