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Annual Health Equity Leadership Institute Focuses on Increasing Researchers of Color Doing Health Equity Research

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Dr. Olufunmilola Abraham

Researchers from around the country will come to the University of Wisconsin-Madison this week, June 17-21, for the annual Health Equity Leadership Institute (HELI), a research and leadership immersion program to help increase the number of minority researchers investigating health disparities and health equity.

“HELI is pretty great because you have a week of networking and learning from senior people,” Dr. Olufunmilola Abraham, an assistant professor in the School of Pharmacy at the UW-Madison, tells Madison365. “One of the things that I love is that they bring in people to the university from across the country. The nice thing is that I’m not just learning from people at my university. I don’t have to travel and I can pick people’s brains from all kinds of really well-renowned universities from across the country.”

Twenty-five attendees are expected from 16 institutions from 15 states to attend the five-day immersive training institute designed to promote minority researchers and research efforts focused on health disparities. The HELI program is hosted by the UW Institute for Clinical and Translational Research’s Collaborative Center for Health Equity in partnership with the Maryland Center for Health Equity in the School of Public Health at University of Maryland, College Park.

“We’re thrilled to have HELI alumni return to share their experiences with the new cohort,” said Dorothy Farrar-Edwards, director of the Collaborative Center for Health Equity, in a press release. “Seven of our HELI alumni will be lending instruction to the program this year, as will four of our Collaborative Center for Health Equity Research Fellows.”

According to the Institute, this year’s attendees are scholars involved in community-based participatory, behavioral health, health services, public health and community-engaged research in African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, White, American Indian/Alaska Native and Hmong communities, with special interests in underserved rural/urban, low socioeconomic disadvantaged, marginalized youth, formerly incarcerated and limited English proficiency populations.

Dr. Abraham will be part of a panel on community engagements and health services research.

“The panel will be talking about how to engage the community and health equity research,” she says.”Specifically, I’m tasked to talk about community-engaged scholarship and practical tips for helping faculty to be successful in this kind of research from preparing grants to fund this line of work to how to publish these kinds of works so that it gets out there and has impact.

“Community-engaged scholarship has not always been as well received as we would like so we’re trying to move forward and to train the next generation of researchers to be able to do it well at different institutions across the country,” she adds.

There are now 177 HELI alumni in the U.S. and abroad. This will be the second time that Abraham will be part of the event.

“Last year, I was one of the HELI scholars – it was the perfect time. I had just transitioned from the University of Pittsburgh school of pharmacy,” Abraham remembers. “I had only been here two or three months so it was perfect because it was kind of my orientation to UW. I got to meet mentors who have mentored me throughout the past year and a half. I got to meet other scholars who are kind of at similar phases than me.

“It really helped me understand the structure and it gave me the tools that helped me to be successful in grant-writing, publishing my work and other aspects of the research process,” she adds.

Abraham’s life was in a little bit of chaos when she arrived back in Madison as a researcher at the UW School of Pharmacy last year with a new home, new job and new pregnancy. It can take a while to settle down and figure things out because you’re trying to do so many things. Her mentor Chris Sorkness suggested she apply to the Health Equity Leadership Institute.

“It was a pretty intense year for me – moving to a new city from Pittsburgh, finding daycare, etc.” she says. “To have a week dedicated to helping you be successful, I think that’s pretty amazing.”

Abraham earned her BPharm Degree from University of Lagos, Nigeria and practiced as a hospital and community pharmacist in Nigeria. She earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social and Administrative Pharmacy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW). She also earned a Ph.D. minor in Industrial and Systems Engineering from UW, focused on human factors and ergonomics and a graduate certification in patient safety.

As a faculty member and an assistant professor, she now helps develop research with youth around safe medication youth and medication adherence.

“I’ll see a lot of the other faculty do a lot more with older patients. I can easily say that I’m the only one who has a big focus on youth helping to develop intervention that really equip our youth at a young age to know how to ask questions about medications – either over-the-counter medications or chronic condition medication they take for a real illness that they might have,” Abraham says.

Her research program is currently focused on interventions that can be implemented in middle schools or high schools to teach in health classes about opiate medication safety.

“One of the things that we realize is that a lot of times we’re not teaching teens about to safely manage medications,” she says. “We just kind of assume that they figure it out. So sometimes they’ll be asking from friends or parents who might not know the right thing to do around getting rid of medications your not using and not sharing medications. That medication safety piece is one big aspect of my research program.”

Abraham says that she also helps young people with cystic fibrosis adhere to their medication.

“They take 8-10 meds and it can be quite challenging,” Abraham says. “What my research program tries to do is to work with the outpatient team – specifically the pharmacists – to figure out how to help them learn about their medication and why it’s important and support them and monitor them around how they are doing with their medications with the hope that they don’t come back to the hospital.

“We also look at using innovative, interactive approaches for youth such as game-based learning. We have a game that is currently in development that will help kids learn how to be smart about medications.”

Abraham is looking forward to a week of sharing her ideas at HELI. A reception to welcome the 2019 scholars to Madison will occur from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 18, in the H.F. DeLuca Forum in the Discovery Center, 330 N. Orchard St. This event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

“I really enjoy HELI. I feel like I’m developing myself and learning something new. I’m networking. It really feels like a family. For me, the HELI group is a big part of my support system in terms of moving my research forward and helping me to be successful.