A major award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will help San Diego State University build its capacity to conduct pioneering public health research for many years to come. Earlier this year, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), part of NIH, awarded SDSU a $10 million endowment to improve the infrastructure that supports population health and health disparities research.
Rather than funding specific research projects, the money will be spent to boost SDSU researchers' ability to carry out their research, and to better collaborate across disciplines and institutions. Examples could include purchasing technology to allow researchers to collect more and better data, hiring computer programmers to design new research software, or investing in data storage systems to better manage forays into big data.
"Technology changes so quickly that you don't want to get locked into funding for specific technologies that will become outdated," said Guadalupe X. "Suchi" Ayala, associate dean for research in the College of Health and Human Services, director of the Institute for Behavioral and Community Health, and one of the endowment's principal investigators. "The most exciting aspect of this endowment is that it will allow us to build an infrastructure to support health disparities research well into the future."
Principal investigator and SDSU mathematics professor Jose Castillo said that "connecting the College of Health and Human Services with the College of Engineering and the College of Sciences via the Computer Science Research Center High Speed Network will allow researchers in the colleges to move and share data in real time."
Kee Moon, professor of mechanical engineering and founding principal investigator of the SDSU Smart Health Institute, added that he believes the new infrastructure will provide a home to multi-college and transdisciplinary collaboration, and it will help to foster innovations in research programs with potential applications to a broad range of fields including health, medical innovation, medical devices, disease diagnostics, and wireless communication.
Ayala believes SDSU succeeded in winning the endowment because the university already has a strong, productive and collaborative cohort of researchers studying population health and health disparities. Her own work, supported largely by NIH funding, focuses on family and community-level interventions to promote healthy eating among San Diego and Imperial Counties' Latino population. The new award outlines plans for collaboration between SDSU's College of Health and Human Services, College of Sciences and College of Engineering.
The endowment's funding mechanism is relatively unique among grants awarded by NIH. Rather than a lump sum accorded to a particular investigator, the endowment will contribute $2 million per year over the next 5 years to SDSU's philanthropic auxiliary, the Campanile Foundation. This money will be invested and the returns it generates will be used for research infrastructure improvement. At its peak, Ayala estimates that the endowment will generate approximately $479,000 per year.
SDSU must maintain this investment for 20 years, after which the funds will release fully to the Campanile Foundation to be used to support population health and health disparities research. At that point, the endowment will have generated about $20 million in total funding. The initial $10 million investment will count toward The Campaign for SDSU, which is raising $750 million to strengthen the university's academic excellence.
Better infrastructure will allow researchers across SDSU's campus to share data and resources and answer new kinds of questions, said Kristen Wells, an assistant professor of psychology at SDSU who contributed to the endowment application. She studies cancer-related health disparities and how best to communicate cancer risk and prevention information. Having the resources to more easily work with researchers from different disciplines will allow her to explore deeper, more complex relationships between communities and their cancer risk.
"One of the main reasons we pursued this funding was to be able to build networks between people who don't necessarily work together every day," Wells said. "We want to bring those resources together, especially for looking at emerging technologies like big data."
Ming-Hsiang Tsou, geography professor and director of SDSU's Center for Human Dynamics in the Mobile Age, added that the university's expertise in combining geospatial research with social media will give researchers new insights into how communities understand and respond to their own population health issues.
"With this endowment, we can collaborate with many different disciplines across campus to develop geospatial technologies to facilitate research in health disparities and population health," Tsou said.
Fruitful interdisciplinary collaborations and new avenues of research will make SDSU investigators even more competitive for future funding from agencies like NIH, Ayala said, supporting the university's commitment to health disparities and population health research.
"I believe we are on the cusp of some really wonderful things," she said.