Fellows Featured in Health Publication
Study explores diversity within racial groups
There’s a new gray area in health research. For decades, scholars have looked at disparities through the lens of black and white. Changing demographics and growing immigrant populations are demanding new approaches that explore diversity within racial groups.
“The black population is not monolithic,” says Helena Dagadu, a fellow at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College, who is preparing to complete her Ph.D. in the department of sociology at Vanderbilt University. Dagadu is among the Center’s first cohort of doctoral fellows set to graduate in May 2015.
A native of Ghana who came to the United States as a child, Dagadu is particularly interested in how health inequities affect black immigrant populations. “African immigrants represent one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the U.S.,” she says. Her research examines health disparities between the native-born American black population and black African immigrants—specifically as they relate to chronic, non-communicable conditions such as stroke, heart disease and diabetes.
“The tide is turning in health research,” she says. “It’s moving toward an understanding that there are differences in black populations.”
Dagadu’s observations align with a recent upsurge of interest in how underrepresented populations self-identify. According to the Pew Research Center, the 2010 census revealed that many communities, including Hispanics, Arabs and people of mixed race, have said they’re unsure of which box to check on census forms.
“The 2020 census will ask the race/ethnicity question differently,” Dagadu says. “They’re recognizing diversity within groups, which has implications for survey data coming out of the census. And we researchers get a lot of our data from those survey responses.”
Like Dagadu, Courtney Thomas, Ph.D., another Meharry scholar, investigates the ways in which race and ethnicity influence health within black population groups.
“The center of my research has been understanding health paradoxes,” says Thomas, who successfully defended her dissertation in sociology earlier this year. She will be joining the University of Kentucky faculty as an assistant professor of sociology and African American and Africana studies.
“For example, we see that college-educated black women are at higher risk than lower-educated white women when it comes to maternal outcomes,” Thomas says. “I want to see how race and ethnicity figure into those outcomes.”
Another area of interest for Thomas is the effect of race-based stressors and racial identity on mental well-being. “Even subtle forms of racial discrimination have a significant impact on mental health,” she explains. “The idea of not belonging—being unsure about how you’re viewed by others—causes stress and anxiety.”
The negative effects are markedly greater for women than for men, Thomas adds. Subtler forms of racial discrimination have a greater impact on women, while more overt acts have a greater effect on men.
Exploring how differences in social class and gender affect physical health and mental well-being is crucial, Thomas says. “It gives us a more nuanced understanding of black Americans’ health issues.”
Both Thomas and Dagadu applaud the fellowship at Meharry for providing scholars with invaluable hands-on mentorship and leadership development. Another 11 fellows are currently pursuing doctoral studies.
The Center, launched in 2009, has worked to increase the diversity of health policy leaders in the social, behavioral and health sciences—particularly sociology, economics and political science—who will one day influence health policy at the national level.
“The RWJF fellowship has been a great complement to my Ph.D. training,” Dagadu says. “We’ve had opportunities to hear the perspectives of prominent scholars interested in building a healthier America. I’ve gained practical professional development skills, and learned how to talk about my work to the media as well as influential policymakers working to eliminate health disparities.”
She credits the experience with helping her land a position as an endowed assistant professor of sociology at Loyola University–Chicago. “I believe this program helped make my interview a success,” she says.
“You can go to any research program and learn,” Thomas explains. “This fellowship has given me regular exposure to top scholars. Right from the beginning, I felt like I was in the middle of the field and I had a place at the table.”