Many engineers and biomedical researchers share a desire to improve the world around them. While some seek solutions to universal problems, others strive to improve lives in ways that are specific to local communities. For instance, food deserts, aging populations, climate and air quality in Arizona represent a unique intersection of applied health-related research opportunities.
With a five-year $570,000 grant from the National Library of Medicine, a team of University of Arizona professors is creating the Place-based, culturally responsive Health Informatics Research Education, or PHIRE, program. Health informatics is the field of study focused on optimal use of data and information, often supported by technology, to address questions in biomedical research and improve the health of individuals and communities. Place-based training engages students in research projects that respond to local health and environmental needs while considering all the strengths a particular place has to offer, such as its history, culture, people and ecology.
Principal investigator Vignesh Subbian, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and systems and industrial engineering, and an associate director at the Center for Biomedical Informatics & Biostatistics, said he is inspired by UArizona’s identity as a public R1 research university, land-grant university, and Hispanic-Serving Institution that is on the land and territories of Indigenous peoples.
“What that all means to me is we need to be doing work, whether it’s an education project or a research project, that serves our community,” he said. “It got me thinking, how can we leverage this to motivate students? Students are often interested in working on problems they can relate to.”
The grant is part of the National Library of Medicine’s Short-Term Research Education Experiences to Attract Students to Biomedical Informatics/Data Science Careers and Enhance Diversity award initiative, which totals $8 million in investment to 12 institutions over five years.
Developing partnerships to increase health equity
Some place-based issues take a particularly large toll on communities that have been historically marginalized. These include inequitable access to clean water on Native Nations, poor infrastructure to access health care and digital technology in rural areas, and structural and systematic barriers to addressing disparities in healthy aging. Therefore, another major goal of the project is to recruit and retain students from historically minoritized groups to examine problems in impacted communities — sometimes their own communities.
“This moves the research questions from the abstract to the concrete,” said collaborating principal investigator Kacey Ernst, professor and program director in the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department in the Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. “It can generate new questions, better interpretation, and can drive a passion for the work that may not be there otherwise. This engagement serves underrepresented and marginalized communities by providing their voices in the research. Ideally, they will identify and drive the questions being asked based on their knowledge and context of the community.”
A three-pronged mission
The team intends for half of each cohort to be made up of transfer students, so they are partnering with regional community colleges such as Pima Community College, Arizona Western College, and Cochise College. The program involves 10 UArizona colleges; the College of Engineering; the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences; the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; the Eller College of Management; the College of Science; and all five health sciences colleges.
“The 20 faculty we brought together all come from different backgrounds, demographically and intellectually,” Subbian said. “It really represents the interdisciplinary nature of the program.”
A wide range of faculty also means a wide range of existing research areas for students to tap into, ranging from research into EPA Superfund sites to nutrition in rural communities. But more importantly, students can all pull from what they already know about their own communities and combine it with what they’re learning to propose their own research questions.
“Complex questions need to be tackled through multiple lenses,” Ernst said. “I am excited to work with faculty across campus and get a bird’s-eye view of all the exciting work they are doing. Most of all, I look forward to working with the students to build the program, helping them to find confidence and a passion for research that can make a difference.”
PHIRE will recruit a group of 60 undergraduate students, or 12 students every year across five years, to offer three major training components. During a 12-week summer research experience, students will learn how to responsibly work with health datasets to answer regionally relevant questions, such as how air quality affects life expectancy, or how rural communities are affected by their distance from specialty clinics such as post COVID care centers.
Then, PHIRE scholars will earn thematic undergraduate minors related to biomedical and health informatics. To enhance both parts of this experience and improve retention and graduation rates for students studying informatics — now and in the future — the program will offer training on culturally responsive practices to both program faculty and the PHIRE Scholars.
“It takes diverse teams to solve some of our world’s most pressing challenges, but individuals who come from communities directly affected by these problems offer a unique and critical perspective for creative solutions,” said Elizabeth “Betsy” Cantwell, Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation. “Provost Liesl Folks and I launched the Undergraduate Research Task Force earlier this year to ensure all UArizona students are exposed to high-impact research activities. This initiative is an excellent example of furthering that mission while at the same time serving our Arizona community.”