NIH Awards Drexel University $14.4 Million for Health Disparities Research

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Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health and College of Nursing and Health Professions recently received a 5-year, $14.4 million “Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation” (FIRST) grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to hire, retain and support diverse, early career researchers with a focus on health disparities research on aging, chronic disease and/or environmental determinants.

FIRST is a novel initiative launched by NIH with the goals of enhancing and maintaining cultures of inclusive excellence in the health research community and supporting the career development of diverse faculty.

Drexel is one of six institutions nationwide receiving funding as part of the inaugural FIRST cohort, and the sole recipient in Pennsylvania.

The funding will drive the development of a transformative and sustainable infrastructure to support faculty at Drexel. It will create evidence-based mentorship and sponsorship programs, build a community of scientists in health disparities research engaged in population health to intervention science research and establish policies and procedures for faculty recruitment, retention and progression. The grant will provide for the recruitment and career development of 12 diverse, early career scientists at the tenure-track, assistant professor level. It will also support their efforts to submit competitive NIH research grants in health disparities research. The goal of the grant is to create sustainable institutional changes necessary to promote inclusive excellence for all and it includes innovative ways to evaluate the success of the program at multiple levels, including its scientific impact.

“Today, more than ever, we recognize the importance of conducting rigorous research into the drivers of health inequities so that we, as a society, can take the actions we need to improve health,” said co-principal investigator Ana Diez Roux, MD, PhD, Dana and David Dornsife dean and distinguished university professor of epidemiology at the Dornsife School of Public Health. “Achieving this goal requires a diverse faculty who can raise new questions, provide new interpretations and generate innovative solutions. This new program will allow us to attract and support faculty working in these areas and will energize health disparities research at Drexel generally.”

The grant reflects a shared commitment from the colleges to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion in recruitment, retention and promotion across careers at Drexel. It also reinforces the link between two recently adopted University strategic goals: to foster an inclusive and equity-driven culture and to strengthen transdisciplinary research. In this instance, more diverse faculty leads to more innovative research in aging, chronic disease and environmental determinants.  

“When research lacks input from diverse researchers, our research questions and measures are inadequate and the communities most in need very often are not included in research studies,” said co-principal investigator Laura N. Gitlin, PhD, distinguished university professor, executive director of the AgeWell Collaboratory and dean of the College of Nursing and Health Professions. “When this happens, our understanding is incomplete and health disparities are not meaningfully addressed; that is, knowledge generation does not translate into actions that reduce health inequalities. This funding ensures that research faculty from historically under-represented groups not just contribute to but lead critical and impactful research in this area.” 

The grant involves three cores co-led by Drexel faculty who are nationally recognized in their areas of expertise; an administrative core co-led by Diez Roux and Gitlin, a faculty development core co-led by Leslie Ain McClure, PhD, professor in Dornsife School of Public Health and Stephanie Brooks, PhD, clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions, and an evaluation core co-led by Maria Schultheis, PhD, professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and Girija Kaimal, EdD, associate professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions.  An internal advisory board of key administrators and deans at Drexel, and an external advisory board of national experts in health disparity research, along with many faculty throughout the university, who will serve as mentors, will participate in this transformative opportunity.

The structure of the grant exemplifies team science and an inclusive approach to transforming the research enterprise. Once developed, new programming will also be available to existing faculty and staff at the University to foster an inclusive environment and maintain the program’s viability beyond this grant funding.

“This grant comes at a time when we are not only continuing to invest more in diversity, equity and inclusion across the University, but also employing this lens to re-evaluate everything we do,” said Aleister Saunders, PhD, executive vice provost for research and innovation. “It is imperative that we continue to support a collaborative structure involving University leaders, academic units and faculty in the shared goal of supporting and fostering research excellence."

The principal investigators noted that the long-term goal is to transform university research policies, procedures and culture and create a sustained pipeline of outstanding, diverse faculty who are well-positioned to be successfully promoted and substantively contribute to health disparities research with significant impact on individual and population health outcomes.

For more information on the program, visit: