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FIU research center empowers researchers and community partners to address health disparities

At the Florida International University Research Center in Minority Institutions (FIU-RCMI), researchers mentor the next generation of health disparities researchers and form lasting community-university partnerships promoting health equity for medically underserved populations in South Florida.

“We are devoted to the elimination of health disparities plaguing minority communities,” said Eric F. Wagner, principal investigator of the FIU-RCMI, director of the Community Based Research Institute, and professor at the School of Social Work at FIU’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. “We do this through several large-scale research projects addressing the social determinants of health disparities, extensive training and mentoring of early career and underrepresented minority investigators, and building partnerships with South Florida community-based organizations.”

The FIU-RCMI began in 2017 with a $13.1 million grant—subsequently increased to more than $15 million— from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD). Since then, the FIU-RCMI has experienced tremendous growth, bringing together researchers and trainees from various disciplines, such as social work, dietetics and nutrition, public health, medicine, engineering, and psychology, to help identify and eliminate health disparities; the FIU-RCMI now includes more than 70 FIU faculty members.

In response to health disparities associated with COVID-19, the FIU-RCMI was awarded four additional research grants, including funding for COVID-19 town hall meetings in multiple languages to help combat misinformation and promote accurate vaccine information. In the article Virtual Town Halls Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy Among Racial/Ethnic Minorities, FIU-RCMI researchers share preliminary findings from the town halls, including survey results and lessons learned from hosting these events.

Meeting people where they are through partnerships

This fall, at its annual Health Equity Symposium, the FIU-RCMI brought together FIU faculty, early career and underrepresented minority researchers, students, and community organizations to discuss how crucial community-researcher partnerships are for promoting health equity in South Florida. Dr. Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, was the keynote speaker, and he applauded the FIU-RCMI for its successes.  Additionally, he emphasized the need for the continuing growth of health disparities research, noting that with promoting health equity, “we just don’t do it well enough, and we particularly don’t do it well enough in the most disadvantaged groups.”

The symposium allowed for ample discussion around the importance of empowering researchers, community organizations, and policymakers to work together toward eliminating health disparities. Speakers, including both well-established and early-career investigators, shared best practices in community-university partnered health disparities research.

Key takeaways from the symposium are summarized below.

Addressing health disparities takes a village

Zoom screenshot of RCMI Symposium participants.
Zoom screenshot of the community partner participants during RCMI’s annual Health Equity Symposium

Community engagement is critical in addressing health disparities. Researchers at universities can work side-by-side with organizations to identify challenges and solutions to help meet the needs of local communities. In addition, these same organizations can leverage research findings to improve their offerings and better serve their clients. To help foster these collaborations, the FIU-RCMI established the Community Research Enhancement Grant (CREG grant) program, which provides community partners and faculty researchers the means necessary to develop community-university partnerships.

“The overall goal of this funding is to assist community agencies to expand their ability to conduct research that benefits South Florida community partners,” said Michelle Hospital, leader of the FIU-RCMI’s Community Engagement Core of and associate professor of biostatistics at Stempel College. The program thus has paired FIU researchers with six community agencies; funded partners include the Care 4 U Community Health Center, Caridad Center and the Healthy Start Coalition of Miami-Dade. View the full list of partners.

“It makes me feel proud of the work that we’re doing at the RCMI. We’re a community-engaged university that’s founded on trust and respect,” said Hospital. “It’s this notion that you know when we engage in partnerships that it is a shared leadership.”

Access to research opportunities and mentors help young investigators thrive

When early-career investigators enter the highly competitive world of grant funding, having access to tools and mentors makes a large difference. At the symposium, Eric F. Wagner, FIU-RCMI’s principal investigator, and Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, leader of the FIU-RCMI Investigator Development Core, and professor and chair of epidemiology at Stempel College, walked through a pilot program made possible by FIU-RCMI, which develops research opportunities, and provides mentorship and support to early-career investigators pursuing minority health research. The program’s goal is to provide investigators with the training, resources and guidance needed to secure research projects and successfully compete for peer-reviewed grant funding. 

“Being able to write and apply for grant funding and having the ability to carry out this project has been incredibly helpful, and I wholeheartedly believe that it will continue to pay dividends in the next couple of years,” said Bret Eschman, a post-doctoral research associate at the Department of Psychology at FIU and a FIU-RCMI pilot program awardee. The program has funded 18 pilot projects across three cohorts thus far. “For me, it is a springboard to be able to do some of the larger work that I sort of always have known that I wanted to do but never could get a footing to start doing without the resources the RCMI provided,” said Nicole Fava, associate professor at Stempel College and beneficiary of FIU-RCMI’s pilot program. Learn more about the Pilot Program.

Researchers and policymakers must work together in times of crisis

Left to right: Dr. Mary Jo Trepka and professors Zoran Bursac and Gabriel Odom

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Stempel College researchers Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, professor and chair of epidemiology; Zoran Bursac, leader of the FIU-RCMI Research Infrastructure Cores, and chair and professor of biostatistics; and Gabriel Odom, associate professor of biostatistics and FIU-RCMI pilot study awardee, have worked alongside South Florida policymakers to help them understand and interpret COVID-19 data and what it means for their communities. “Elected officials were looking at this data and were struggling a little bit to try to piece out actionable information,” said Odom during the symposium. These FIU-RCMI researchers spent hours sifting through data from various sources to inform policymakers on trends in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and how to best communicate the information to the public. At the symposium, Dr. Trepka, Bursac, and Odom walked through the challenges they faced and how they overcame them to ensure policymakers shared accurate information.  Details of their work are documented in the report Lessons Learned from Miami-Dade County’s COVID-19 Epidemic: Making Surveillance Data Accessible for Policy Makerswhich suggests that consistent data reporting methods, communication, and transparency are crucial for helping scientists and policymakers work together in times of crises.  

Learn more about the Research Center in Minority Institutions.