UK Research Team Uniquely Poised to Reach Black American Communities, Reduce Health Disparities

University of Kentucky

The populations Danelle Stevens-Watkins, Ph.D., 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 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,” said Stevens-Watkins, a professor of counseling psychology in the UK College of Education and UK’s associate vice president for research in diversity and inclusion

Still, the study is working. 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% 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 in the UK College of Education Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology.

“I don’t know how many people ever have a chance to be on a research team led by a Black woman principal investigator, with a Black woman co-PI and with Black women all across the research team,” said Candice Hargons, Ph.D., an associate professor of counseling psychology and qualitative research expert for Stevens-Watkins’ 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 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 shine a light on 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 to 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,” said Jardin Dogan, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate.

Their 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. The REFOCUS study 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,” said Shemeka Thorpe, Ph.D., a UK Lyman T. Johnson postdoctoral scholar in the UK College of Education Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology.

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 comes with being on such a team have not been lost on its members, and they hold each other accountable.

“We, as a lab, are so uniquely positioned to do this work, work that is completely unexplored in the literature thus far. 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, to make a difference with these disparities,” said Paris Wheeler, a sixth-year counseling psychology Ph.D. candidate.

When Wheeler first began her doctoral work, she was working with data others had collected. Being part of this lab’s studies from their start 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. 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,” Wheeler said.

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

“It’s the morally and 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. 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,” said Natalie Malone, a fourth-year Ph.D. student.

Already, the researchers have gotten 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.’ I’m really excited about that piece of this,” Jester said.

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. 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,” Jester said.

The work of the lab 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 said. “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 graduate and postdoctoral scholars.

“The faculty provide a lot of opportunities to bolster the training we are getting. They help us learn how to apply skills. The skills we are learning 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,” said Brittany Miller-Roenigk, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow.

They have become like a family.

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

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.

“We have a lot of work to do. 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. 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, and conducting respectful and culturally appropriate research,” Stevens-Watkins said.

In addition to the opioid study, the lab members are also:

  • Interviewing Black American women about breastfeeding messages and myths and training breastfeeding peer support counselors;

  • Testing an evidence-based intervention for HIV prevention for Black American women in geographic hotspots in Kentucky and Georgia; and

  • Training Black American community first responders in mental health first aid to improve mental health awareness, literacy, service initiation, and access.

Under the leadership of Stevens-Watkins, the lab’s team members include:

  • Candice Hargons, Ph.D., an associate professor of counseling psychology. Hargons serves as the qualitative research expert on the team, while also managing her own lab focused on the science of racial trauma, as well as sexual wellness, in the Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology.

  • Shemeka Thorpe, Ph.D., a UK Lyman T. Johnson postdoctoral scholar. Thorpe earned her bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro (UNCG), her master’s degree in family and child sciences from Florida State University, and her doctorate in community health education from UNCG. Her research interests focus on the sexual well-being and reproductive health of Black women using sex-positive and intimate justice frameworks.

  • Brittany Miller-Roenigk, Ph.D., a UK Lyman T. Johnson postdoctoral fellow. Miller-Roenigk earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from the University of Louisville and her master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology (clinical) from the University of Cincinnati. Her research interests focus on substance use and mental health disparities among racial and ethnic minority populations, namely, Black adults.

  • Hadeel Ali, Ph.D., a postdoctoral senior administrative research assistant. Ali earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in counseling psychology from the University of Kentucky. She also earned her doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of Denver. Additionally, she was a post-doctoral fellow and anti-racism trainer at the Center for Healing Racial Trauma. Ali’s professional and research interests focus on serving racially/ethnically marginalized communities, refugees and immigrants to promote healing for those of the global majority.

  • Paris Wheeler, a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate. Wheeler earned her bachelor’s degrees in psychology and criminology from the University of Florida and her master’s degree in counseling psychology from the University of Kentucky. Her research interests focus on cultural and structural factors related to substance use and sexually transmitted infection disparities among African Americans.

  • Jardin Dogan, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate. Dogan earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and her master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Clemson University. Her research interests focus on racial trauma and drug and sexual health-related disparities among Black populations.

  • Natalie Malone, a fourth-year Ph.D. student. Malone earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and her master’s degree in counseling psychology from the University of Kentucky. Her research interest focuses on social justice topics and love, sex and spirituality among Black folk.

  • Jasmine Jester, a second-year Ph.D. student. Jester earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in Africana studies and her master’s degree in counseling psychology from Tennessee State University. Her research interests focus on the intersecting identities of gender and race, health disparities and social justice issues.

  • Rayven Peterson, a first-year Ph.D. student in counseling psychology. Peterson earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Spelman College. Her research interest broadly includes social justice issues, mental health disparities and the barriers and facilitators to mental health help-seeking within the Black community.

  • Jovonna Atkinson, research coordinator. Atkinson earned her bachelor’s degree in Spanish and international economics at the University of Kentucky and will graduate from UK with her master’s in social work in Fall 2023. She is currently the research coordinator of REFOCUS and oversees the daily operations of the research study.

  • Leah Holton, research administrative coordinator.

  • Destin Mizell, a first-year Ph.D. student in counseling psychology.

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