A groundbreaking research collaborative at Northern Arizona University received another $21 million grant to continue its work to promote health equity and study health disparities among diverse populations of the American Southwest.

The Center for Health Equity Research (CHER) received a $21 million, five-year grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It was initially funded in 2017 with a grant of the same size, at the time one of the largest grants in NAU’s history. This work is critical to Native nations as well as the missions of both NAU and NIH.

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“SHERC’s overall goal is to increase basic biomedical, clinical and behavioral research, and research opportunities, for underrepresented and underserved communities in this region and increase access to resources for these groups, particularly the Native nations that have lived in the Southwest for centuries,” said Julie Baldwin, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Regents’ professor in the Department of Health Science, director of the Center for Health Equity Research and SHERC’s principal investigator. “This grant will allow us to build on its unprecedented success of the first five years, as well as to increase engagement of underrepresented faculty in leadership, increase the success of our early-stage investigators and contribute to improving health equity and outcomes for the people of this region.”

Since 2017, SHERC has funded 72 new projects that included partnerships with researchers throughout the country, including sister institutions University of Arizona and Arizona State; engaged with at least 75 new external partners, including Native nations, law enforcement agencies and health clinics; provided research experience for more than 100 students, many in historically underrepresented groups; and produced significant research results on a variety of topics, including COVID-19, criminal justice, asthma, breast cancer, opioid use, autism and many other critical health and justice topics.

It also created opportunities for other funding; SHERC-affiliated faculty have been awarded a total of 78 external grants that total more than $40 million, including prestigious NIH career development awards to Native researchers Ricky Camplain and Amanda Hunter.

“This continued funding is a testament to the critical research happening at NAU alongside our community, clinical and university partners both throughout the region and nationwide,” said NAU President José Luis Cruz Rivera. “We are deeply committed to bettering health and educational outcomes for all residents of Arizona and the sovereign nations within our state, and the pioneering research that SHERC is doing continues to move us toward that important goal.”

As the work continues, SHERC will begin or increase efforts in four key areas:

• Increased focus on translational research, which moves scientific research to the community for everyday clinical practice and health decision-making.

• Increased focus on team science, which combines specialized expertise, theoretical approaches and research methods to address real-world issues across disciplines, which is increasingly necessary in today’s society.

• Launching a new leadership development program to help increase the number of underrepresented investigators and core leaders conducting health equity research.

• Expanding focus on diversity by operationalizing a diversity, equity, inclusion and justice framework, in alignment with NAU’s nascent Strategic Roadmap.

While this grant will fund dozens of projects over the course of the next five years, a few projects have already been earmarked for funding.

• Ricky Camplain, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Sciences and CHER, is studying physical activity and sedentary behavior and their impact on health outcomes among incarcerated people. The study’s long-term goal is to increase physical activity in this population to improve physical, mental and behavioral health.

• Emily Cope, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, will study childhood asthma. Arizona has a higher rate of this disease when compared to the national rate, and it is disproportionately seen in economically disadvantaged urban populations. The study will look at the effect of a component of the diet that modifies the gut microbiome to improve asthma symptoms.

• Joe Mihaljevic, assistant professor in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems, will be developing modeling tools that allow researchers to more effectively model how the spread of infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, is influenced by characteristics of specific communities, like social determinants of health. This will help researchers make more informed predictions that could aid public health practitioners in protecting their communities.

In addition to these projects, SHERC has five Cores that all interact to ensure the collaborative’s mission is accomplished:

• Administrative and Recruitment Cores: Led by Baldwin, with support from Kelly Laurila (evaluator) and Suzie Martinez (program manager).

• Investigator Development Core: Led by Dirk deHeer, professor of health sciences, and Heidi Wayment, interim dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

• Community Engagement Core: Led by Samantha Sabo (associate professor of health sciences and CHER), Nicolette Teufel Shone (professor of health sciences and CHER) and Heather Williamson (associate professor of occupational therapy and CHER)

• Research Capacity Core: Led by Catherine Propper (professor of biological sciences), Monica Lininger (associate professor of physical therapy and athletic training) and Robert Trotter, II, (Regents’ Professor of anthropology emeritus).

There will be several opportunities to support new pilot projects. Learn more about SHERC’s myriad programs, including the Fairness First CampaignStories of Community-Engaged Research, its varied publications and the funding opportunities that are available through SHERC.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health under Award No. U54MD012388. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.