$15M Award Bolsters SDSU Health Disparities Research

Hiring new faculty and supporting health disparities research are key elements of a National Institutes of Health award just received by SDSU.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021
SDSU will expand its innovative research into health disparities.
SDSU will expand its innovative research into health disparities.

San Diego State University is embarking on a $15 million effort to bolster Latinx health disparities research and strengthen the pipeline of scientists focused on the subject.

Funded by a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), SDSU FUERTE (Faculty Unified towards Excellence in Research and Transformational Engagement) plans to hire a cohort of 11 faculty focused on Latinx health disparities research and provide them with thoughtful career development and mentoring. Three of the new faculty will be hired at SDSU Imperial Valley.

“A top priority of San Diego State University’s strategic plan is becoming a premier public university that takes seriously its deep roots as a Hispanic-Serving Institution,” said Hala Madanat, interim vice president for research and innovation. “This grant is a huge step forward in that goal and represents SDSU’s strong commitment to supporting health disparities research.”

The program is led by public health professor and Interim Associate Vice President for Research and Innovation Mark Reed and social work professor María Luisa Zúñiga, and supported by a team of interdisciplinary scientists and administrators.

Faculty recruitment is already underway and is focused on researchers across disciplines with an expertise in such areas as addiction, cancer disparities, environmental health and obesity. The new faculty positions represent a significant investment in SDSU’s growing health disparities research core.

“Latinxs are the largest minority group in the country, and they are disproportionately affected by health disparities,” Reed said. “By providing invaluable support for diverse researchers who are tackling a topic critical to our region and nation, FUERTE leverages SDSU's strengths and positions us as a major hub for health disparities research.”

The award is part of the NIH Common Fund's Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) program, an effort that aims to foster sustainable institutional culture change through hiring and faculty development.

“I am incredibly proud of the work of researchers Mark Reed and María Luisa Zúñiga, who are leading the types of community-based research that SDSU is known for,” said SDSU President Adela de la Torre. “This type of innovative work is in the DNA of our faculty researchers, who are increasingly successful at gaining these highly competitive, high-impact grants.”

Recruitment and support

FUERTE’s leaders aim to hire a cohort of new health disparities researchers focused on diverse communities, and will subsequently build and test a mentorship model that strengthens faculty outcomes by providing better career advancement and support.

SDSU social work professor Eileen Pitpitan will lead the evaluation of FUERTE’s approach and evidence-based faculty development plan, taking stock of what strategies work and helping the university implement successful approaches for all faculty.

“We are a part of an effort to not just talk about diversity and inclusion, but to actually walk the walk,” Pitpitan said, adding that thoughtful change across academic institutions is necessary to allow a diverse set of faculty to thrive.

“We want to see institutional change come not just from the top down, but also from the bottom up — starting with the new faculty this program brings in,” she continued. “What can we do to support them, and how can we institutionalize these development plans so they are deeply woven into our institutional culture?”

Imperial Valley focus

Three of the 11 new faculty hires will teach and research at SDSU Imperial Valley.

Southern California’s Imperial Valley is a rural, predominantly Latinx community that supports a robust agriculture industry. Many of the residents in Imperial Valley face environmental challenges, exposure to the effects of climate change, and hurdles to accessing health care — the very conditions that the new cohort of health disparities researchers will be expert in addressing.

And with enrollment at an all-time high, SDSU Imperial Valley is poised to support growth and serve as an economic driver and nexus of research for the region.

“FUERTE is an opportunity to significantly bolster an area of research that is so needed in Imperial Valley,” Zúñiga said. “The program will help us have better connections with our SDSU Imperial Valley colleagues, increase our research collaborations and support their growth.”

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