Building Infrastructure to Identify and Address Health Disparities

Conversation with Dr. Ezemenari M. Obasi, Wayne State University

NIMHD’s Conversations with Researchers Engaging With Communities

February is Black History Month. As we celebrate the significant contributions to America—from its history through present day and beyond—by people who represent Black and African American communities, we recognize researchers who are promoting health equity through their community-engaged research.

Photo of Dr. Ezemenari Obasi

Meet Ezemenari M. Obasi Ph.D., principal investigator in minority health and health disparities research.

Dr. Ezemenari M. Obasi is the new vice president for Research at Wayne State University, a role he was appointed to in February 2024. Previously, he was a professor and associate dean of research at the University of Houston (UH). At UH, he also founded and directed UH’s HEALTH Research Institute and ran the Hwemudua Addictions and Health Disparities Laboratory (HAHDL), which focused on research related to substance use/misuse, the neurobiology of stress, cultural predictors of health behaviors, and health disparities that disproportionately affect marginalized communities.

At the helm of HAHDL, Dr. Obasi took a transdisciplinary approach to research and leveraged a diverse range of settings to investigate biological, psychological, social, and cultural determinants of health.

He has been a principal investigator for several NIMHD-funded projects, including “HEALTH Center for Addictions Research and Cancer Prevention” (U54 MD015946). The aims of this project, located at UH, were to:

  1. Execute a research infrastructure to advance scientific rigor, productivity, and impact of health-equity science.
  2. Increase the success of underrepresented people from minority communities securing NIH funding.
  3. Advance community engagement to address substance use disorders and cancer prevention in medically underserved communities.

Dr. Obasi earned a bachelor’s in physics at the University of California - Irvine, and a doctorate in counseling psychology with a minor in quantitative psychology in psychometrics and data analysis at The Ohio State University. He completed his pre-doctoral internship at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital.

Q & A with Dr. Ezemenari M. Obasi

What is your research goal, purpose, and aim?
My research goals are to:

  • Grow equitable collaborations with racial and ethnic minoritized communities and associated stakeholders that drive the development of community-identified health challenges and research priorities.
  • Build interdisciplinary and inclusive research teams to identify novel mechanisms for understanding the root causes of health disparities.
  • Develop a rapid model for disseminating and implementing data-driven and strength-based prevention and intervention strategies that improve the quality and length of life in our most under-resourced and underserved communities.

How is your work advancing the science of minority health and the health of populations that experience health disparities? Are you seeing specific changes in particular communities or groups?
My team is advancing the science of minority health and working to improve the health of populations that experience health disparities, particularly Black and Latino communities. We work to leverage our understanding of the mechanisms that regulate stress across disorders and, therefore, could inform the development of digital therapeutics and prevention programs aimed at addressing substance misuse and chronic health conditions.

What has surprised you about the discoveries from your work and your experiences engaging with communities?
It is so much easier to disseminate and implement data-driven prevention and intervention strategies when community members actively participate in all aspects of the research process and help identify and direct the focus.

As an example, in Houston’s Third Ward and East End communities, obesity and diabetes were identified by community members as a public health challenge. While obesity and diabetes fell outside our team’s traditional areas of expertise, we were able to secure a significant investment by the UnitedHealthcare Foundation to provide free diabetes prevention programming to community members. One community member even provided a testimonial in which she expressed her excitement for having a reason to live again.

This demonstrated the collective impact our work was having on community members. In addition, this community member also proactively shared her experiences of Project TOUCH with her network via word-of-mouth. Her positive experience successfully motivated her peers to join the program and take the steps to prevent the progression of Type-2 diabetes in their neighborhood.

What inspired you to become a researcher in minority health and health disparities?
Growing up in Southern California allowed me to see first-hand how what we now call the social determinants of health can have negative effects. It was always my ambition to leverage my strengths to improve the quality and length of life of people belonging to racial and ethnic minoritized communities. As I obtained degrees in physics and psychology, I realized I could use my leadership skills and training in behavioral health to build infrastructures aimed at identifying and mitigating the root causes of health disparities.

One example of such infrastructure is the HEALTH Center for Addictions Research and Cancer Prevention, which I founded and directed during my tenure at UH. This center designs, executes, and disseminates community-engaged research that informs novel prevention, early detection, diagnosis, and intervention strategies that mitigate a broad range of health disparities — with an emphasis on advancing research in alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use and preventing cancer in historically underserved communities.

How do we encourage the next generation of scientists?
We need to make sure we have strong mentoring programs that provide the necessary education, training, and professional development activities that the next generation needs to gain access to the tools and networks necessary for successful research careers. It’s critically important that young and early career researchers are also included in cutting-edge research projects.

Working inclusively in this way will ensure they gain first-hand experience while also having the space to drive innovation with novel ideas and strategies. Ultimately, senior investigators will need to let go and get out of their way – while continuing to provide support as needed – so the field can continue evolving in new and innovative directions.

What do you envision as the future of minority health and health disparities research?
I envision a future where scientists are humble enough to recognize the limits of their knowledge and understand that their expertise only represents one piece of the massive puzzle. In this future, the lived experiences, beliefs, indigenous healing practices, cultural strengths, and traditions of communities are fully integrated into science and oriented toward health equity.

It is a future where community-based participatory research – and its forthcoming evolutions – becomes the norm whereby all walks of life have an equitable seat at the table to inform current health challenges, funding priorities, and the development of multi-level strategies aimed at mitigating and ultimately eliminating health disparities.

Page published Feb. 16, 2024