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Getting To Know UIC SPH Researchers

Getting To Know UIC SPH Researchers

The UIC School of Public Health supports an exciting research enterprise that addresses individual, community, and population health locally and globally. Our work spans the lifecycle, diverse communities, and health services. Read on to learn more about the career paths of our featured faculty and how they are shaping the future of public health. 

 

 

Sanjib Basu, PhD

Paul Levy and Virginia F. Tomasek Professor of Biostatistics
 

When did you begin your career at UIC?

I began my career at UIC in July 2016 as a professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the School of Public Health. In August 2016, I was named the Paul Levy and Virginia F. Tomasek Professor, the first endowed professorship in the division. I am also the Director of Biostatistical Development for the Division.

Can you describe a bit about your career path to becoming a full professor?

My background is in Statistics and I was a faculty member at the Division of Statistics at Northern Illinois University (NIU) where I joined in 1996 as an assistant professor and stayed there for 20 years until joining UIC in July of 2016. I became a full Professor at NIU in 2005 and I was recognized as a Presidential Research Professor of NIU in 2015. I served in the leadership role of the Director of the Division of Statistics from 2013 to 2016. I had always been in touch and been thoroughly impressed by the work of my colleagues at UIC and it was rewarding for me to have the opportunity to join them in 2016.

What areas of research interest you? What inspired you to focus on this specific research interest?

I grew up with a research focus on statistical theory and methods as a graduate student and a junior faculty. This has gradually evolved to a focus on methodological developments driven by scientific questions in biomedicine, especially in different aspects of cancer research. Many of my collaborative research projects are in lung cancer, one of the most aggressive and fatal cancers. While I do not directly interact with patients, I see the impact of cancer, both at patient level in response to therapy, progression and survival level outcomes, and at the population level in incidence and mortality rates evolving over time and it is so inspiring to see how research has been making such major differences in understanding the mechanism of cancer and at every levels of cancer outcomes. 

What are some of the current projects you are working on? What are the preliminary findings thus far?

I am involved in a host of research projects ranging from strong methodological focus to applications in varied areas. In one recent project, with a PhD student who has since graduated, we have been developing a feature selection method that we use to select an optimal panel, from a large number of biomarkers and clinical features, that is associated with  improved patient outcomes,. I am quite psyched about this work, both due to its excellent methodological performance and because feature selection is so critical to understand and postulate the mechanism and target intervention and therapy.  Another research project, still in a somewhat early stage, has a precision medicine focus, where we are developing methods for recommending treatment choice for a current patient based on data and information from previous patients.  

What has been the most challenging aspect of your research career thus far? What has been the most rewarding aspect?​

To me, the most challenging aspect of any research is to understand what the real questions are and how to structure them in a framework or a model.  Especially in interdisciplinary collaborative research, where each member expresses his or her views in their discipline specific terms and norms, I find this truly challenging. It’s also often the case with PhD students where we both strive together for days and weeks to create a framework for the research questions. The most rewarding aspect is undoubtedly when a student succeeds in framing that question, pursues it successfully and graduates. The opportunity to work with students and see them evolve and grow is truly gratifying.

What types of collaborations are you currently involved in?

I have been collaborating in cancer research for a long time, in projects on improving early detection, for prognosticating cancer recurrence, on treatment choice and on translational cancer research. I find collaboration to be another strongly rewarding aspect of research as I learn so much from them, not only in the scientific area of the collaboration but I always learn about new methods and techniques and gain deeper insight in my own field of biostatistics. I am getting involved into new research projects on small area disease mapping, environmental epidemiology and neuroimaging that I am very excited about.

What advice would you offer early stage researchers?

I prefer the term junior researchers. There are lots of skills and tricks of the trade that one learns through experience. But I feel what is important is to be excited about what you are doing and to be committed to it. It is important to be methodical and practical, but it is also important to deviate from them and think out of the box.

 

Faith E. Fletcher, PHD, MA

Assistant Professor

When and how did you begin your career at UIC? 

I began my career at UIC in August 2013 as an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Health’s Division of Community Health Sciences. Prior to joining the UIC faculty, I completed a National Cancer Institute R25T Postdoctoral Fellowship in Cancer Prevention at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center focused on implementing behavioral interventions designed to reduce cancer disparities among HIV-infected populations.

Can you describe a bit about your career path to becoming an Assistant Professor?

Early exposure to research and health inequities as an undergraduate student through Tuskegee University’s National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care ignited my passion for alleviating health disparities among underserved populations. Training through Michigan State University’s interdisciplinary graduate program in Bioethics, Humanities, and Society provided me with an ethical foundation to analyze underlying socio-economic disparities with attention to tensions related to balancing individual and collective interests. I pursued a PhD in Health Promotion, Education and Behavior at the University of South Carolina, and completed postdoctoral training in behavioral science at MD Anderson to gain the methodological training to promote social justice, which is central to public health’s mission. My decision to join the academy is jointly fueled by health inequities and disparities related to the underrepresentation of women of color in academic institutions. In my career, I hope to contribute to strengthening the academic pipeline for women of color academics simply as an issue of justice.

What areas of research interest you? What inspired you to focus on this specific research interest?

The overall goal of my research program is to develop and implement community- and clinic-based social and behavioral research to reduce disparities across the HIV continuum among African American women, a population disproportionately affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Grounded in approaches from bioethics, public health, and the behavioral sciences, my primary areas of research focus on disparities in cervical cancer screening, smoking cessation, and reproductive health among HIV-positive and HIV-vulnerable women with attention to the ethics of research on underserved populations.

What inspired you to focus on this specific research interest?

We all have a story to tell, and all of our stories matter. The individual and collective stories shared by African American women living with HIV reveal human suffering, economic and political disadvantage, racism and discrimination and gender inequity. Narratives reveal unwavering strength, courage, faith, and resilience. I ultimately do this work to give “scholarly voice” to countless African American women living with HIV because their lives also matter.

What are some of the current projects you are working on OR what are your goals for future projects? Any preliminary findings thus far?

My research program is supported through UIC’S Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health K12 Fellowship under the leadership and mentorship of Drs. Stacie Geller (Principal Investigator), Pauline Maki (Program Director and Co-Investigator) and Joanna Burdette (Co-Program Director). I recently led a jointly funded Chicago Developmental Center for AIDS Research and Center for Clinical and Translational Science pilot study designed to determine the feasibility of delivering a targeted smoking cessation intervention to women living with HIV/AIDS. Study findings support the importance of formative research in intervention development to better understand how social determinants of health influence smoking initiation and continuation among women living with HIV. Additionally, I am currently collaborating with colleagues, Drs. Celia Fisher (Center for Ethics Education at Fordham University) and Geri Donenberg (UIC School of Public Health; School of Medicine) to examine perceptions of barriers and benefits to adolescent participation in Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) clinical trials among African American women and their adolescent daughters. Findings highlight the importance of developing ethically sound strategies to strengthen the availability, accessibility and acceptability of new scientific advances for HIV-vulnerable populations.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your research career thus far? 

One of the most rewarding aspects of my research was my selection into the Research Ethics Training Institute sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse under the direction of Dr. Celia Fisher. The institute aims to establish a cadre of HIV investigators who can address ethical dilemmas that may arise in the HIV research process. My work in HIV research ethics has garnered invitations to Michigan State University’s Center for Ethics and Humanities and scientific meetings including the Public Health Responsibility in Medicine, American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, and the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. Most notably, I was recently appointed to the American Public Health Association’s Ethics Code Task Force to collaborate with an interdisciplinary group of philosophers, ethicists, psychologists and public health experts tasked with developing a new ethics code that is responsive to shifts and innovations in public health. 

What types of collaborations are you currently involved in? How did they evolve?

A critical component of my research program is to engage social scientists, medical scientists, health care providers, and community members in cross-field collaboration to reduce HIV/AIDs disparities. I am currently Co-PI with Dr. Sadia Haider (Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Illinois at Chicago School of Medicine) on a Society of Family Planning Interdisciplinary Innovation Planning Grant. This grant is a collaborative effort with colleagues, Dr. Amy Johnson and Ms. Jessica Terlikowski, from AIDS Foundation of Chicago to ultimately increase the integration of PrEP education and service delivery into existing health service systems for HIV-vulnerable women of reproductive age. Recognizing the power of leveraging community-academic relationships to enrich research implementation, translation and dissemination, I approached AIDS Foundation of Chicago colleagues to discuss potential collaborative work, which led to this multidisciplinary collaboration. This collaboration among others serves as the foundation for my work as an interdisciplinary scientist to address persistent HIV/AIDS inequities from a multi-level, intersectional lens.

What advice would you offer new researchers?

As a new faculty member, establishing an academic identity can be challenging, particularly, in a new institution and location. Seek out internal and external senior and peer mentorship, but remain true to who you are as a researcher. Stay the course, even if you have to carve out your own path; once you’ve successfully blazed an academic trail, remember to engage those individuals who are traditionally excluded from academic spaces and dialogue.

 

Vida Henderson, PharmD, MPH, MFA

PhD Candidate, Community Health Sciences

 

 How long have you been at UIC? 

I began the PhD program in Community Health Sciences in Fall 2012.

 What areas of research interest you? What inspired you to focus on this specific research interest?

My overarching research goals are to explore interconnections between mental and physical health outcomes and are comprised of three major areas: women’s health and well-being; racial and gender health inequities; and qualitative and mixed research methods. I am also interested in aging, health communication, and participatory research approaches. My research interests are a culmination of my personal and academic experiences over the past several years. I have always held the belief that mental health is inextricably tied to physical health in that a person’s degree of well-being is associated with their engagement in positive or negative health behaviors. This became especially evident to me as I worked as a pharmacist in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where I saw the necessity of displaced residents drawing upon inner resources to cultivate motivation to attain and maintain their physical and mental health. Being an African-American woman, my awareness and desire to tackle racial and gender health disparities and inequities has seemingly always lived inside of me, but this desire has ripened and matured during my time at UIC. Being at a school with a such a strong focus on social justice has helped me to build my confidence, skills, and resolve to do my part in ensuring that all Americans, especially underserved populations, have equal access to resources and opportunities that help us all thrive and build a healthy and “well” society. I am always aware, humbled, and inspired by the fact that my education, freedom to pursue my goals, and access to opportunities and resources were built by the lives, dedication, and sacrifices of others and I feel a need to do my part and be an advocate for others. The public health research that I have done thus far and plan to continue are my efforts to do so. Finally, I believe that listening to others is the best way to understand a person’s experiences and is a deep catalyst and motivator for change. Qualitative methodology feels natural and intuitive to me, and tackling research questions by listening to people’s stories has been the most rewarding part of my research career. I am always moved by individuals’ willingness to share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas with me and I feel a great sense of responsibility to them to use their information to benefit them and others.

What are some of the current projects you are working on OR what are your goals for future projects? Any preliminary findings thus far?

Currently, I am working on my dissertation, which is a mixed methods study examining the association between psychological well-being and use of preventive care services in midlife African-American women. My dissertation is funded by three awards: the  National Institute on Aging Dissertation Award to Increase Diversity, the Alice J. Dan Dissertation Award, and the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy Dissertation Research Grant. I am currently in the data analysis phase of my project. I am also working on The Well-Woman Project with my academic advisor and dissertation chair, Dr. Arden Handler. The project aims to listen to women’s voices in an effort to understand factors that affect their ability to be healthy and to seek well-woman care. The project is funded by the Kellogg Foundation and conducted in conjunction with CityMatCH and 8 urban city health departments across the country. We conducted 17 Listening Sessions across 8 cities throughout the U.S. and also collected women’s stories via a website and phone line. The information received from women has helped us develop actionable recommendations to support well-woman care and a woman friendly health care system.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your research career thus far? What has been the most rewarding aspect?

The most challenging aspect of my research career thus far has been defining myself as a researcher. I think generally speaking, so much of our research interests are shaped by things we experience in our personal lives and things that we learn academically and socially along the way. So, I have found that the more I experience and learn, the more my research interests continue to become more targeted in some ways and expanded in others. Perhaps this is more of a challenge for a new researcher, like myself, but it has taken me some time to be able to succinctly and clearly define myself as a researcher. The most rewarding aspect of my research career thus far has been the confidence that I have gained as a researcher, and by far, the people that I have worked with and met during my MPH studies at University of Michigan and my PhD studies at UIC. I have been fortunate to work with and be mentored by outstanding researchers who have taught me how to conduct rigorous, ethical research and have nurtured me to become an independent researcher. My advisor, Dr. Handler, has been a model example of the type of researcher, teacher, mentor, and supporter that I aim to be. I have worked with wonderful community research partners in my work over the past several years and have been greatly rewarded by all of the women who have shared their stories and time with me during the qualitative work that I have done. I have also made lifelong, supportive friends at UIC, who have been invaluable to me during this time.

What types of collaborations are you currently involved in? How did they evolve?

As mentioned earlier, I am currently working on the Well-Woman Project, which is a joint effort between UIC-SPH, CityMatCH, and 8 urban city health departments across the country, which is led by Dr. Arden Handler and Dr. Nadine Peacock. Prior to this project, I worked on a number of research projects with Dr. Handler and had been fortunate to take Dr. Peacock’s qualitative analysis course.

What advice would you offer other students for finding funding and carrying out dissertation research?

My first word of advice for students who are seeking funding for dissertation research would be to start early! Formulate your research questions and ideas early and start seeking funding opportunities early. Utilize UIC’s resources for helping students find funding opportunities, but also do a lot of independent research on funding sources yourself. It cannot be understated that any student doing a dissertation is being asked to successfully carry out a full-fledged, rigorous research project, essentially by oneself. That usually takes financial resources, which exist, but are not always easy to get. So, the best way for any student to maximize their chances of getting dissertation funding is to start looking early; talk to advisors and grant administrators; look at examples of previously funded grant proposals from whichever source one is seeking funding from; and whether it be an advisor or other faculty member, find someone who can dedicate time to reading multiple versions of your proposal and is willing to give substantive feedback; and finally, go after grants that offer smaller amounts of funding as well.

Jun Ma, MD, PhD, FAHA

Co-Director, Center for Research on Health and Aging
Research Professor, Health Policy & Administration IHRP

When and how did you begin your career at UIC? 

I began my career at UIC in August 2015 as a professor in the School of Public Health’s Department of Health Policy and Administration, with an adjunct appointment in the Department of Medicine’s Division of Academic Internal Medicine and Geriatrics. I’m also a co-director of the Center for Research on Health and Aging in the Institute for Health Research and Policy.

Can you describe a bit about your career path to becoming a full professor?

I’m a dually trained MD and PhD researcher with expertise in preventive medicine, nutritional science and behavioral science.I had a somewhat nontraditional career path leading to full professorship because I didn’t seek postdoctoral training.After earning my doctorate in 2002, I took a research assistant position in a new research team at the Stanford Prevention Research Center in the Department of Medicine of Stanford University, and within two years became research director of that team.In 2006 I transitioned to be a scientist at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute, which is within a large health network in Northern California. My medical and behavioral science training, diverse research experiences at Stanford, and ability to develop innovative studies in a health system-embedded research setting propelled my career at a fast speed.

What areas of research interest you? What inspired you to focus on this specific research interest?

I lead an Integrative Precision Lifestyle Medicine and Translation Research portfolio.My research focuses on new delivery models and neurophysiological mechanisms of behavior change interventions in multiple major chronic conditions that are the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in the United States.These include, but are not limited to, obesity, coronary heart disease, hypertension, prediabetes, metabolic syndrome, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and depression.I am particularly inspired to conduct research on the prevention and control of these debilitating and costly chronic conditions using comprehensive, mechanism-driven lifestyle interventions that are individual patient-centered.At the same time, I’m very interested in developing interventions that are scalable and sustainable for population health management through use of internet and mobile technologies.I am also strongly committed to lifestyle intervention research specifically targeting underserved populations, such as Hispanics/Latinos, to address health inequity.

What are some of the current projects you are working on OR what are your goals for future projects? Any preliminary findings thus far?

I’m Principal Investigator for 2 R01 and 2 U grants funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Agency for Health Research and Quality (AHRQ).These projects include randomized controlled clinical trials of lifestyle interventions in obese adults with significant comorbidities, such as prediabetes and depression and experimental mechanistic investigations using brain imaging, virtual reality and smartphone passive sensing. The latter research is funded through the NIH Office of the Director’s Science of Behavior Change roadmap initiative, featuring an experimental medicine approach to understand the neurobiological self-regulation mechanisms in behavior therapy for comorbid obesity and depression.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your research career thus far? What has been the most rewarding aspect?

This is a very exciting time in biomedical and biobehavioral research, which presents a great challenge and at the same time is immensely rewarding.Competition for prestigious federal grant funding is fierce.However, the reward of engaging in transdisciplinary research for potentially profound public health impact definitely is unparalleled.

What types of collaborations are you currently involved in? How did they evolve?

Through my funded research I’m currently involved in collaborations with numerous physician and PhD research scientists at difference academic institutions and research organizations.Since arriving at UIC, I have been privileged to be collaborating with faculty in SPH and other health science colleges. These collaborations have led to two submitted NIH grant applications.

What advice would you offer new researchers?

It is of paramount importance for new researchers to seek out high quality mentoring from established investigators who are committed to advancing the careers of young investigators.

Anything else you might like to share?

Be inspired to become a person of value, not a person of success.

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