Disparities: The Fellows: A Closer Look

The Fellowship Program

Through the Disparities SFRN, the AHA mentored and trained 12 postdoctoral fellows to be part of an innovative new generation of disparities investigators.

Fellows were assigned to specific teams at each SFRN center. But they also collaborated within and beyond their centers, which prepared them to develop new goals and strategies.

“The fellows all learned to connect with different people in new ways,” said Dr. Robert Adams, Center Director at the Medical University of South Carolina.

“You often start your career quite focused and protective of your ideas, but you learn that you can go so much further with collaboration,” Adams said. “We teach fellows that it’s better to be part of something than nothing at all”

The fellows forged relationships with other scientists and mentors across all four centers while conducting research on new ways to disparities in cardiovascular disease. The fellows also advanced their careers by networking and presenting research at the AHA Network Annual Meetings and other AHA conferences and meetings.

“The AHA really took care of us and helped connect us to national leaders with one-on-one mentoring sessions,” said Jeong Hwan Kim, M.D., a fellow at the Morehouse School of Medicine/ Emory University Disparities Center.

“Even if you’re already getting good mentorship in your own institution, this fellowship was unique in the way you learn from fellows and mentors who are all researching very different types of disparities. The structure of this program had so many benefits.”

Joy Jones Buie, Ph.D.

Medical University of South Carolina
SFRN Disparities Fellow, 2017–2019

For Joy Jones Buie, working on the Disparities SFRN was a “horizon-expanding experience.” “This fellowship gave me the ability to look at health disparities through a different lens,” she said. “It gave me the chance to become a true translational scientist.”

After Buie earned a Ph.D. in immunology in 2013, she became fascinated with how health disparities impact vascular diseases. When she heard about the Disparities SFRN fellowship at the Medical University of South Carolina, “it seemed like the perfect fit for me and for them.”

Buie joined the center’s WISSDOM initiative (Wide Spectrum Investigation of Stroke Outcome Disparities on Multiple Levels) and sought out new ways of improving stroke outcomes among African Americans.

“We know the biggest risk for stroke is high blood pressure, and we know about 75% of African Americans have high blood pressure by the age of 55. So, I really focused on understanding the unknown factors that lead to this disparity in the development of hypertension

Buie’s findings confirmed previous research on the stiffness of blood vessels and cognitive impairment among African Americans with cardiovascular disease. It also opened new doors for her to conduct research on how social determinants and genetics impact health disparities.

She is particularly excited about studying the way psychosocial stressors impact the genes of African Americans.

“It’s hard to change your socioeconomic status, but what if we create a drug or cognitive behavioral therapy to remedy some of the effects that stress has on the genome?” she said.

Buie’s work on the Disparities SFRN contributed to her winning a K22-NINDS Advanced Postdoctoral Career Transition Award to Promote Diversity in Neuroscience Research. She said her fellowship inspired her to pursue a nursing degree at the Medical University of South Carolina and to think more broadly.

“This kind of health disparities research really helps everybody,” she said. “Once we figure out what’s happening in people with diseases that are more severe, then we can understand how to prevent disease for the general population.

Suzanne Burns, Ph.D.

Medical University of South Carolina SFRN Disparities Fellow, 2016–2018

“I think we can all be guilty sometimes of staying in our silos,” Suzanne Burns said. “This fellowship taught me to communicate and collaborate with professionals beyond our silos.”

An occupational therapist specializing in treating stroke patients, Burns said she built relationships with scientists of all different stripes during her Disparities SFRN fellowship at the Medical University of South Carolina.

“It was really interesting to see how all these researchers from different disciplines came together to try to solve challenges,” she said. “Along with my exquisite mentorship team, it really helped me feel confident and learn so many different approaches to research and science.”

Burns focused on MUSC’s population science study, working with nurses and community health workers to create and test culturally tailored ways to help African Americans who’ve had a stroke.

The research will have a significant impact in the Deep South “stroke belt” where black people have worse outcomes than white people, she said. “But I also think there are a lot of opportunities for delivering those interventions across the U.S.”

As part of the fellowship, Burns gave presentations and co-authored publications, including My Guide to Living with and Preventing Stroke: A Handbook for People Who Have Had a Stroke and their Families, Caregivers and Communities. In wake of the fellowship, she won the ASA/ ACRM Young Investigator Award in Post-Acute Stroke Rehabilitation. She’s currently an assistant professor in the School of Occupational Therapy at Texas Woman’s University.

Ehimare Akhabue, M.D.

Northwestern University
SFRN Disparities Fellow, 2016–2018

“No matter what stage we’re at, we can always learn more.”

That was Ehimare Akhabue’s credo during his Disparities SFRN fellowship at Northwestern University, where he investigated whether phosphate-based additives found in processed foods contribute to disparities in heart failure and chronic kidney disease.

Akhabue was already a cardiologist at Northwestern during his AHA fellowship. By the time he finished the program, he was a full-time faculty member at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University.

Taking part in the AHA’s Disparities SFRN opened his eyes to new ways of working, he said.

“Collaboration is essential when you’re learning,” he said. “This was a great opportunity to not only think of your own ideas, but to learn from senior investigators who also contribute ideas and make sure you’re headed in the right direction.”

Chad Danyluck, Ph.D.

University of Colorado Denver
SFRN Disparities Fellow, 2017–2019

When Chad Danyluck heard about the Disparities SFRN, he was finishing his Ph.D. dissertation on “physiological synchrony” – the idea that when two strangers interact, it changes their biology.

It turns out there was already a synchronicity between his career focus and the Disparities project being launched by the University of Colorado Denver.

“To my great surprise, the key goals of the AHA fellowship were similar,” he said. “It enabled me to deepen my prior expertise.”

Danyluck worked with the UC Denver team to explore how negative interactions such as racial discrimination and stereotyping can create stress that increases the risk of cardiovascular disease among urban American Indians and Alaska Natives.

His work focused on how discrimination can trigger depression, sleep problems and other mental health issues, leading to high blood pressure. Danyluck also studied how those problems seem to decline as people age.

“Hopefully this work will provide insights that can lead to the development of culturally appropriate interventions that help American Indian and Alaska Natives cope with the harms of discrimination,” he said.

Danyluck presented his SFRN work at conferences and in publications including Validation of the Brief Perceived Ethnic Discrimination Questionnaire – Community Version, in American Indians and Alaska Natives in Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology. He said he built important new relationships at annual AHA meetings and the AHA Research Leaders Academy, and his fellowship also paved the way for funding from the National Institutes of Health to do more research on the topic.

He’s now an assistant professor in health psychology at Carleton University in Canada, where he plans to conduct further studies on Indigenous communities.

“The AHA fellowship was an amazing opportunity,” Danyluck said. “It gave me a wide range of responsibilities, broadened my expertise and gave me the chance to work with a fantastic interdisciplinary team of scientists. Everyone was quite invested in my training, and my closest mentors remain invested in my success.

Jeong Hwan Kim, M.D.

Morehouse School of Medicine/Emory University SFRN Disparities Fellow, 2017–2019

Like many clinical doctors, Jeong Hwan Kim learned to have a laser focus on helping sick patients get better. Now, thanks to his Disparities SFRN fellowship, he also understands the bigger picture.

“I have a better insight into what’s happening outside the hospital, which was really important for me to learn,” Kim said. “Collaborating with psychologists, social scientists and epidemiologists gave me a new perspective.”

Working with investigators at Morehouse School of Medicine and Emory University, Kim studied what makes people and neighborhoods healthier among Black Americans living in Atlanta and how that affects their cardiovascular health.

The concept of community “resilience” could be a key to identifying new ways to improve heart health among Black Americans, he said.

“Specific areas of Atlanta are resilient to adverse outcomes, while certain areas are even more at risk,” he said. “We often think about communities in terms of walkability or green space or how safe it is. Our findings suggest non-tangible things like social connection and social network may actually be more meaningful.”

Kim’s work from the Disparities SFRN, Individual Psychosocial Resilience, Neighborhood Context, and Cardiovascular Health in Black Adults was published in Journal of the American Heart Association, Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, Preventing Chronic Disease and Annals of Epidemiology. He plans to finish a cardiology fellowship at Emory University by the end of the year. After that, he wants to research the complexities of heart health, race and society.

“I’ve come to appreciate how difficult it is to tease apart the multi-factoral aspects. It’s the context that matters,” he said. “I’m truly grateful for the opportunity that AHA has given me. It’s really helped me prepare for the next stage of my career: becoming an independent investigator studying disparities.”