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Beginning 2022: Creating Change Large and Small

Posted on January 31, 2022
Drone photograph of Drexel's campus
Photo credit: Elevation One Droneography

By Dean Ana V. Diez Roux, MD, PhD, MPH

As we begin 2022 and approach two years of the COVID-19 pandemic it is easy to feel discouraged and hopeless. Just when we thought that we could see the proverbial “end of the tunnel” the omicron surge created new challenges and uncertainties making visible once again unresolved fundamental problems in our health care systems, our public health infrastructure, and indeed in our society. There is much debate (and I would say uncertainty) even within the public health community about what the future holds and what the best response to COVID-19 should be. Will it become “endemic” and what does that mean exactly? And how should we balance our undeniable need to be together, social animals that we are, with our desire (some would say our moral obligation) to protect the most vulnerable? Most importantly is there any chance that if and when “we go back to normal” we will adopt a “new normal” where we create lasting change in response to the social problems that the pandemic has highlighted so vividly including the structural inequities built into our economic system, the systemic racism that permeates our institutions and practices, and the need to recognize once and for all that we are collectively responsible for each other and that creating a healthier, more equitable and sustainable world requires concerted social action.

In these times, when the challenges seem overwhelming and out of our control, we can find hope in smaller yet still meaningful and perhaps even transformative initiatives that we are a part of. For me, as we begin 2022, one of these things has been the launch of the Drexel Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) program. Together with the Drexel College of Nursing and Health Professions, the Dornsife School of Public Health was awarded one of the six inaugural NIH grants to support the hiring of 12 new early career faculty. The initiative has at its core promoting what NIH refers to as “inclusive excellence” i.e. creating an environment where researchers from many different backgrounds can come together to generate meaningful and socially impactful knowledge. Given our mission and research strengths, the Drexel program focuses on health disparities research from etiology to policy and intervention. Research at NIH showed that even after controlling for many other factors, underrepresented groups (and specifically Black applicants) were less likely to be successful at obtaining NIH R01 funding (the prime investigator-initiated grant award mechanism available through NIH) than white applicants. The program thus focuses on recruiting and supporting a cohort of diverse early career research-intensive faculty so that they can be successful in achieving R01 or R01-equivalent funding and has a special focus on increasing the representation of groups underrepresented in the health sciences. Most importantly, the program also aspires to transform institutional policies and practices at the University as a whole so that they are inclusive and promote diversity. This of course is a major task that cannot be achieved through this program alone, but certainly the support provided by FIRST will be an important incentive and driver for change.

We are fortunate in that the Drexel FIRST program is synergistic with many other initiaves at Drexel University and at our School, including most importantly, the School’s Anti-Racism Action Plan, which includes among its objectives to increase the diversity of our faculty and the support for research on the impacts of systemic racism on health. Drexel FIRST is also highly complementary to the new Ubuntu Center on Racism, Global Movements, and Population Health Equity as well as much work ongoing across our Departments and Centers. It has been wonderful to see the interest that the Drexel FIRST program has generated and the outstanding quality of the many applicants for the positions we have posted (it will be so hard to choose!). You can learn more about the program here. Applications are still being accepted.

One of the most gratifying aspects of reviewing the many applications to Drexel FIRST has been the breadth, ambition and interdisciplinary nature of the work these early career scholars are engaged in, and the ways in which they bring their own life experiences to the questions they pose and the hypotheses they present. The questions they want to answer are hard questions that often raise complex methodological challenges that are not easy to resolve, and that we have to address with intellectual honesty and scientific rigor. But they are also critically important questions, the answers to which have real implications for social action, for the ways in which our society is organized and the policies that we adopt: science for collective well-being at is best. I wish them and all others engaged in this path here at Dornsife and elsewhere insight, resourcefulness, and perseverance.