Conversation with Dr. Evan White, Laureate Institute for Brain Research

Integrating Clinical and Cultural Neuroscience to Promote Health and Well-being

NIMHD’s Conversations with Researchers Advancing Health Equity

November is American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. As we celebrate the significant contributions to America—from its history through present day—by people who represent Native communities, we recognize researchers who are promoting health equity through their work to advance the science of minority health and health disparities.

Meet Evan J. White, Ph.D., principal investigator in minority health and health disparities research.

Dr. Evan J. White

Dr. White is a principal investigator at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR) and Director of Native American Research and the Electroencephalography Core. He was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is descended from the Shawnee Tribe and Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. He’s an enrolled member of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, and belongs to the Shawnee Chapter of the Native American Church of Oklahoma and the Whiteoak Shawnee Ceremonial Grounds.

Dr. White’s graduate research focused on employing psychophysiological techniques to test predictions from cognitive models of mood and anxiety disorders. His clinical training was as a generalist clinical science with an emphasis on adult outpatient treatment of anxiety, mood, and trauma related disorders using evidence-based psychotherapy approaches. He completed his predoctoral clinical internship at the Charleston Consortium (Medical University of South Carolina/Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center) in Charleston, South Carolina, working closely with his research preceptor, Lisa McTeague, Ph.D.

In July 2022, Dr. White took his current position at LIBR. In this role, his work focuses on employing clinical cultural neuroscience to improve mental health outcomes among American Indian communities.

He received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Oklahoma State University and, under the mentorship of DeMond M. Grant, Ph.D., his master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from Oklahoma State University as well.

Q&A with Dr. White

What inspired you to become a researcher in minority health, health disparities, and health equity?
My inspiration for working toward health equity and addressing mental health disparities is rooted in my identity as a Shawnee man. I’m motivated by the goals of health research and a personal commitment to helping the communities I come from, to improve health and well-being of the populations we serve.

Scientific and medical communities know that mental health risk factors disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minority communities. Like many Native people, I’ve seen firsthand the effects of suicide, substance misuse, and addiction in my community. I’ve also seen the strength and resilience of Native peoples, rooted in relationships and traditional cultural practices and values. It’s critical to leverage the assets found within communities themselves to cultivate a community-grounded understanding of treating and preventing disparate mental health conditions.

What is your research goal, purpose and aim?
My research aims are twofold:

  1. Establish a functional framework for the protective role of cultural engagement against poor mental health outcomes.
  2. Identify neuroscientific signatures of cultural protective factors, which may enhance culturally informed prevention and intervention efforts.

A core focus of this research is implementing multimodal neuroscience and psychophysiology with a particular emphasis in electroencephalography/event-related potentials. My goal is to integrate clinical and cultural neuroscience to identify modifiable factors as potential treatment targets for mental health intervention and prevention.

How is your work advancing health equity? Are you seeing specific changes in the health disparities experienced by particular communities or groups?
Unfortunately, many mental health disparities among Native populations persist and, in some instances, may even occur more frequently. Admittedly, our work is in its early stages, and we haven’t yet observed improvements in health disparities. However, this work is advancing health equity in important ways.

Native populations are vastly underrepresented in clinical neuroscience research, particularly as a population of focus. Our work seeks to center Native communities in our approach to clinical-cultural neuroscience research by building community partnerships to collaborate in our research process. This is informed by a substantial body of veteran and early career health equity researchers who promote community-grounded health equity research.

From the research you are doing, what has surprised you about the discoveries from your lab and its impact?
We’re taking steps to describe neural mechanisms associated with the protective role of identity within traditional culture against poor mental health. Using archival data analysis of a larger LIBR project (i.e., Tulsa 1000), we’ve demonstrated that neural markers of cognitive control are associated with decreased occurrence of both substance use disorders and suicide related thoughts and behaviors. We aim to identify culturally relevant constructs (e.g., engagement with traditional practices, spirituality) that promote resilience against mental illness.

My goal is to merge clinical and cultural neuroscience using a community-based participatory research (CBPR) approach to delineate constructs related to traditional cultural engagement that are protective against mental health and substance use disorders. My lab partners with a local tribe to generate a community conceptualization of these factors. This approach can serve as a framework for understanding the influence of cultural engagement on mental health.

Preliminary evidence suggests specific cultural factors reduce the impact of mental health symptoms on neurocognitive function. We’re preparing these findings for dissemination soon.

How do we encourage the next generation of scientists?
In pursuing my passion for this work, I’ve benefited from many supportive mentors, training programs, colleagues, friends and family. Receiving this support for my own development has helped me find ways to encourage the next generation of scientists.

This entails engaging students with opportunities for hands-on experience at all levels of research, developing ideas, generating research questions, conducting analytic training, and taking opportunities to share and present findings with a broad audience. These experiences help build confidence and skill. Providing such training in an inclusive and growth-oriented environment allows trainees to explore and develop their own passion for research.

In line with this approach, I developed and directed two training programs at the LIBR:

  1. A summer internship program that provides paid summer research experience to undergraduate students interested in pursuing graduate training in mental health research.
  2. A two-year postbaccalaureate research fellowship for an individual interested in research in underserved populations.

In addition to formal training, career development, and mentoring, investigators can encourage the next generation by demonstrating passionate dedication to rigorous and impactful research. Community engagement is at the core of my own work. Involving community partners in idea development, knowledge building, and dissemination ensures the impact of our research.

This encourages trainees and fuels motivation for the hard work of health equity research.

What do you envision as the future of minority health, health disparities, and health equity research?
In my view, the future of research in minority health and health equity research lies in understanding the health impact of a broader set of systemic factors (e.g., historical, sociocultural, environmental, economic) at both individual and community levels. Understanding health disparities within the context of this broader web of factors will not only increase understanding for how health disparities develop and why they persist, but also increase the ability to intervene at multiple levels of the systems in which they exist.

Optimistically, in the long term, I believe the field of health equity research will continue to grow into a discipline that acknowledges and employs the strengths of communities to promote health and well-being, in addition to mitigating disease and dysfunction. Research efforts that meaningfully engage communities (emphasized in minority health and health equity research) will help delineate factors related to health outcomes and ultimately inform our understanding of effective health and well-being promotion.

Page updated November 21, 2022