SAU’s College of Science and Engineering, in partnership with Arkansas Department of Health (ADH), has been awarded a $1 million federal grant for the implementation of a CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) initiative to address health disparities among high-risk populations, including racial and ethnic minority populations and rural communities. The project, Building a Diverse Workforce to Advance Health Equity, has multiple components, including a student training program to provide opportunities for students to engage in activities focused on health equity in underserved communities.
The objectives of the project aim to improve the diversity of the health care workforce in the Southern Arkansas region and develop community partnerships that promote health awareness in our rural communities. As part of the grant, SAU students will serve as program scholars and receive funded internships to work alongside faculty and community partners to conduct public health surveys and community needs assessments in rural areas. Additionally, program scholars will investigate COVID-19 and vaccine-related issues, collaborate with health care providers, and promote health education across the region to promote health access and equity.
Dr. Abdel Bachri, Dean of the College of Science and Engineering at SAU and the grant’s Project Leader said, “This project will be a unique opportunity for collaboration between faculty and students from various departments at SAU. Students will be out in the community working with healthcare providers and the public to better understand many of the challenges that exist to improve access to quality health care in our region of the state. We are excited to be partnering with ADH.”
Dr. Jennifer Kelton-Huff, Assistant Professor of Public Health and Advisor to the Public Health Program at SAU, is a co-investigator for the effort and looks forward to getting her public health students involved. “The pandemic has exposed some critical gaps in our health care system, and identifying those areas where we can improve people’s access, understanding, and awareness of the resources that are available can contribute to the quality of life for those that live in rural areas.”
Members of SAU’s Biology and Nursing Departments will also help lead the project. “This will be a chance for our students to make meaningful contributions directly in our communities, as well as an opportunity to establish new relationships across the region so that SAU students interested in the health fields will graduate with on-the-ground experience working with people of diverse backgrounds,” says Abe Tucker, Chair of SAU’s Department of Biology.
The Director of the Office of Health Equity and HIV Elimination at the Arkansas Department of Health, Dr. Michelle Smith, is pleased with this new collaboration with SAU, stating “COVID-19 highlighted the profound impact of long-standing inequities in health that requires a multifaceted approach with an emphasis on a more diverse workforce. We are excited to begin this partnership with SAU and are confident that their efforts will help us combat misinformation and distrust in minority and rural communities.”
Dr. Cassie Cochran, Deputy Director for Public Health Programs at ADH, also looks forward to this new collaboration. “We are thrilled to engage more students and faculty in addressing issues in public health access and health equity. These issues require multiple organizations and perspectives to create change, and we are proud of this partnership to continue improving access for all Arkansans,” says Dr. Cochran.
Additionally, the grant provides funding for in-person summer camps targeted toward rural and underserved area high school students from grades 9 through 12. Various hands-on laboratory activities are planned with the ultimate goal of energizing the young scholars about choosing a career in health care. The funding will also establish a computing infrastructure to train students in techniques and data analytics tools, with the goal of enabling students to develop a quantitative understanding of population health. Arkansans continue to experience a shortage of primary care health service providers and health care workers.
SAU faculty involved in this CDC-funded effort include Dr. Abdel Bachri (Project Leader and Director), Dr. Abe Tucker (Co-director and Principle Investigator), and co-investigators Dr. Antoinette Odendaal (Biology and Chemistry), Dr. Jennifer Kelton Huff (Public Health), Dr. Daniel McDermott (Biology), Dr. Tara Almand (Nursing) and Stacey Hickson (Administrative Support).