UF awards faculty nearly $1 million to study racial disparities

The University of Florida is committing nearly $1 million to faculty research projects focused on racial disparities in health care, diversity in professional programs, challenges in developing and teaching an inclusive curriculum, and strategies for creating a more inclusive campus environment.

UF Research and the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer have been working together since June to support programs that reflect UF President Kent Fuchs’ call for a wide-ranging examination of race relations at the university.

Over the last few weeks, UF Research has awarded $970,000 to more than a dozen faculty teams across campus. 

The projects funded include one that addresses racial disparities in clinical trials of treatments for some of the nation’s most prevalent chronic diseases, like obesity, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, heart and kidney disease. 

“The diseases affect more than 50 million Americans, with the highest rates and worse outcomes observed among Black Americans for whom these diseases account for 40% of all deaths,” said Dr. Azra Bihorac, an associate professor of medicine and principal investigator on the project. “Although it is imperative that clinical trials for new therapies include Black participants, the data does not support that mandate. In one major trial of a new class of medications for diabetes, only 4% of the 102,000 participants were Black.” 

Another project, led by psychology Professor Emeritus Carolyn Tucker, is looking at why older Black individuals are reluctant to take advantage of traditional health care and whether they might be more likely to use telehealth options that have grown significantly during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 called national attention to the occurrence of multiple chronic health disparity diseases among Blacks and older adults, particularly those with low incomes and living in urban areas,” Tucker said. “And while there has been a rapid expansion of telehealth, this expansion did not occur among these most vulnerable populations; furthermore, this expansion occurred without consideration of the readiness for or views toward telehealth among these individuals.” 

Tucker’s team will survey 300 older Black men and women in Gainesville and Jacksonville to gain insights into their perceived barriers to utilizing traditional health care options and to understand how telehealth can be used more effectively with this community.

Several projects are focusing on the development of a more inclusive curriculum across the university.

Katheryn Russell-Brown, professor and director of the Levin College of Law’s Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations, aims to develop a new framework for helping faculty incorporate race, racial justice and the Black experience into the curriculum.

“This project has three goals,” Russell-Brown said. “First, to identify the institutional support faculty members say is necessary to pursue a racial justice research agenda related to the Black experience. Second, to identify the components of a successful professional development program responsive to feedback by UF faculty and based on best practices. Third, to initiate the scaffolding for this institutional rewiring on racial justice curriculum development.” 

Russell-Brown’s team aims to create a comprehensive database of UF faculty who have expertise on race-related subjects, specifically the Black experience, and use that expertise to strengthen relations among these scholars and with students and the university administration.

“This plan builds on the momentum of prior efforts to generate a UF curriculum on race and anti-racism that offers a substantive knowledge base to students and institutional support to faculty,” Russell-Brown said. “It meets the needs identified by core UF stakeholders as a response to the country’s current racial climate and it helps to create significant institutional change and momentum by relying upon expertise among UF’s faculty.”

Other projects focus on the student experience.

Dr. Duane Mitchell, professor of neurosurgery and director of UF’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, is leading an effort to identify barriers to success for Blacks in the biomedical field and to develop strategies for them to thrive.

“Biomedical research is integral to translation of scientific findings to healthcare policy and clinical bedside practice,” Mitchell said. “Biomedical professionals who themselves identify as Black, and understand issues relevant to the Black community, are most qualified to produce culturally-sensitive research.

Mitchell’s team is taking a qualitative approach that will include conducting interviews with 30 Black biomedical professionals and completing rigorous narrative analysis of their stories. The project will then host a storytelling event that showcases five new Black professionals telling their stories. 

“Our project harnesses the universal, culturally-relevant power of personal storytelling, grounded theoretically in the life story tradition to amplify and celebrate the Black scientists and biomedical professional’s experience – that is, Black voices in research at UF,” Mitchell said. 

“Our goal is to leverage UF’s multidisciplinary research strengths to develop solutions to the many health, education and economic disparities that affect people of color, on our campus, in our country, and around the world,” said David Norton, UF’s vice president for research.

UF Chief Diversity Officer Antonio Farias is encouraging all grant recipients to share their research, be it in progress or completed, at an Antiracism Symposium scheduled for next Fall.

“It’s encouraging to see the power of research at UF unabashedly take on racial justice.” Farias said. “We expect these projects to be catalysts for wider interdisciplinary efforts underway to diversify our STEM faculty, understand implicit bias and remove barriers to success.”

Joe Kays January 12, 2021