University of Kentucky Research Team Uniquely Poised to Reach Black Communities, Fight Health Disparities

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Research lab members at a dinner in Lexington, Kentucky, on September 30, 2021. Pictured left from right: Candice Hargons, Jasmine Jester, Jardin Dogan, Brittany Miller-Roenigk, Danelle Stevens-Watkins, Natalie Malone, Shemeka Thorpe, and Paris Wheeler

The populations Danelle Stevens-Watkins, PhD, seeks to help are often difficult to reach. It is a common predicament in health disparity research.

One of her latest projects at the University of Kentucky (UK) requires asking Black Americans who use opioids to talk about their lives. Opening up is risky.

“For women, they are afraid of losing custody of their children. For men, they often question whether they want to draw attention to themselves, given the criminalization of addiction,” says Stevens-Watkins, an associate professor of counseling psychology in the UK College of Education and UK’s associate vice president for research in diversity and inclusion.

Still, participants are signing up. They are telling stories that are rarely discussed openly in Black American communities. Sharing intimate details of their lives with a researcher, they are finding, can be therapeutic when their histories are received with care.  

The fact the study is working likely has much to do with the people who are conducting it. Less than 2 percent of National Institutes of Health-funded senior investigators are Black, and there has been a persistent funding gap for Black scientists applying for research project grants. An exception is Stevens-Watkins’ lab, composed entirely of Black scholars, in the UK College of Education Department of Educational, School, and Counseling Psychology. 

“I don’t know how many people ever have an opportunity to be on a research team led by a Black woman principal investigator, with a Black woman co-principal investigator, and with Black women all across the research team,” says Candice Hargons, PhD, an associate professor of counseling psychology and qualitative research expert for the lab. “Having that chance is really nice because I’ve been a person who participated in other research studies as a student, staff member, or intern, and they would study Black people, but the principal investigator was not a Black person.” 

The graduate students and post-doctoral scholars on the team say they chose to come to UK — an institution, like many in America, that bears a painful racial past — not just to earn their degrees but also to help document the experiences of people who use drugs and study other health disparities in Black populations. They want to use their time on the team to develop information that leads to change.

“We get to be literally feet on the ground out in the community talking to Black people and showing them research can be done by trustworthy people who are just like them,” says Jardin Dogan, a fifth-year PhD candidate.

The lab’s largest study to date is funded by a $3.2 million grant and is one of the nation’s first studies on nonmedical prescription opioid use among Black Americans. The funding, from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, will help fill a dire need for data on this underserved group.

“So often, funding and resources related to the opioid epidemic have gone towards helping rural, White communities. [This] allows Black people’s voices to be heard and gives our team the opportunity to help our community in meaningful ways while collecting data that will have an impact,” says Shemeka Thorpe, PhD, a UK Lyman T. Johnson postdoctoral scholar.

A recent racial awakening in America has put more focus on health disparity research, a field Stevens-Watkins has been in for nearly two decades. To now have a chance to do this work with a team of all Black American women and directly build a pipeline of underrepresented scholars, she says, is one of the most rewarding experiences of her career.  

The power and responsibility that come with being on such a team has not been lost on its members, and they hold each other accountable.

“We, as a lab, are so uniquely positioned to do this work, [which]is completely unexplored in the literature thus far,” says Paris Wheeler, a sixth-year counseling psychology PhD candidate. “As a team of all Black academics, we are able to receive the stories of Black Americans with care, collect data, and ultimately publish it, making known to the rest of the world what we already know from lived experience, the things that are important in our communities to be investigating and to be highlighting, in order to make a difference with these disparities.”

“We are uniquely positioned to use science to have a positive impact on our community. It is meaningful to the communities we serve when you have a team where the power structure looks totally different than what academia and science typically look like.”

When Wheeler first began her doctoral research, she was working with data others had collected. Being part of this lab’s studies from the beginning has been an important experience in her training.

“Being able to be on the ground and see what it’s like to find people, engage them, and have conversations with potential participants has given me a chance to utilize the foundational counseling skills I’ve formed through the years. I’ve been able to build rapport, and that has been a critical part of my development as a researcher,” she says. “It is not enough to just know how to analyze the data. You need to know how to talk with people in the communities you are aiming to investigate.” 

The ability to craft research from the start makes it possible to transform a project into something that truly impacts the community being studied, says Jasmine Jester, a second-year PhD student.

Already, the researchers have been able to follow up with some of the people who have shared their stories for the project.

“We are able to say, ‘You made a difference in research and your voice is heard. Your interview has meant something already, and we are going to recruit 800 more people in a way that’s based off your experience that you were vulnerable enough to share,’” Jester says. “I’m really excited about that piece of this.” 

Natalie Malone, a fourth-year PhD student, says that the project is the ethically correct way to do research. “Your findings will be aligned with what the community actually wants to say. Plus, as I am recruiting participants, I get the chance to offer help with things people are experiencing in that moment,” she explains. “I have had the chance to provide info on Narcan, answer questions on mental health, and provide interpersonal violence resources. Because we are there on the ground doing this, we can also get back together and look at the strategies we used for recruitment and talk about whether it was effective for our community. Those data and techniques go into our papers to inform the next group of researchers.” 

Supporting One Another

The strength in community applies to members of the research team just as it does to their study participants. 

“I wanted a program where I could feel supported by people who look like me,” explains Jester. “Being mentored by a Black woman was very important to me. The counseling psychology program at UK had not one, but two Black women to learn from in an area of research that I was interested in. I saw this as a program with groundbreaking research and where I could grow as a researcher and mental health professional.” 

The work of the team is constant. They meet once per week to regroup but are in continuous communication. 

“Our meetings serve as a way to remind one another we are in this together,” Stevens-Watkins says. “They are able to hear me talk about different grant ideas and help me cultivate those ideas. We are a sounding board for one another and are open and honest with each other about what we are experiencing.”

Participating in research adds to the learning experiences of the graduate and postdoctoral scholars.

Brittany Miller-Roenigk, a postdoctoral fellow, says the faculty provide many opportunities to bolster the training the project provides. “They help us learn how to apply skills [that] all directly relate to the projects we are doing. We learn about and apply advanced statistical methods, and we have grant and job development discussions, too. It’s not just our research agenda we are talking about, but professional development talks as well,” she explains. 

The team has become like a family.

“We find time to laugh and have fun together, which is also important,” Malone says. “Families have their moments too, and we work those out. That’s the value of collectivism.” 

The lab faculty are actively applying for grants and creating new projects. Importantly, they want to continue recruiting talented and motivated scholars to join the work.

 There is a lot of work to do, Stevens-Watkins says. “We are uniquely positioned to use science to have a positive impact on our community. It is meaningful to the communities we serve when you have a team where the power structure looks totally different than what academia and science typically look like,” she explains. “I want to leverage UK, as the major, flagship research institution in the Commonwealth, to have a positive impact in the Black community by building trust, conducting respectful and culturally appropriate research.”

Amanda Nelson is a co-director of communications for the University of Kentucky College of Education. The University of Kentucky is a 2017-2021 INSIGHT Into Diversity Diversity Champion and a 2017-2021 recipient of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award. 

This article was published in our January/February 2022 issue.