UConn creates new health disparities cluster

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UConn has hired three tenure-line faculty members to be part of the new health disparities cluster at the Storrs campus.  

This cluster is made up of one faculty member each in Human Development and Family Sciences, Anthropology and Sociology, respectively. 

The research will focus on how different identities affect the health of an individual. 

Ryan Talbert is a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and part of the new health disparities cluster.  

“I am a health scholar, and a primary goal of my work is to examine critically the creation and maintenance of racial health disparities,” Talbert said. “Critical Race Theory tells us in part that racism is ubiquitous and normative. In other words, racism pervades all aspects of social life from where folks reside, work and socialize, to the quality of life, access to health care and number of years that people live. My research applies these insights to examine racial inequities in health.” 

Talbert’s research has centered around such topics as the mental health outcomes of having public Confederate monuments in one’s locality, how the incarceration of a family member factors into the mental health of Black women and the long-term health effects of Ku Klux Klan terrorism on communities. 

“I am a health scholar, and a primary goal of my work is to examine critically the creation and maintenance of racial health disparities.”

Talbert’s interest in the field came from learning more about the Ku Klux Klan presence in North Carolina during his senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. North Carolina, where Talbert was born and raised, was home to the largest Ku Klux Klan organization in the American South during the civil rights era. Further, Talbert realized, the home of the Grand Dragon of the North Carolina Klan, James R. Jones, was located only a half hour from Talbert’s home town.  

“It was striking to learn that so much historically significant activity had occurred in proximity to my hometown. Yet teachings on systemic racism, the organized efforts of Black Americans to resist violent oppression and the violence carried out in support of white supremacy were not part of my public education,” Talbert said. “The absence of information on race and racism in my formative years in part led me to pursue a graduate degree in sociology.”  

“My research interest pertains to the role of psychosocial structures on health. What I mean by psychosocial structures are these oftentimes chronic stress exposures, such as racial discrimination, gender discrimination, housing insecurity, food insecurity or job strain.”

Jolaade Kalinowski is also part of the new health disparities cluster. Kalinowski is a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Connecticut.

“My research interest pertains to the role of psychosocial structures on health. What I mean by psychosocial structures are these oftentimes chronic stress exposures, such as racial discrimination, gender discrimination, housing insecurity, food insecurity or job strain,” Kalinowski said. “My work looks at what I call a ‘double jeopardy’ for Black women. They’re often hit with the racial ramifications of being Black, as well as the gender ramifications of being a woman. Together, that may lead to a toxic exposure of chronic stress over time.”  

More particularly, Kalinowski researches Black women and cardiovascular disease through the lens of health disparities.  

“Looking at all these different psychosocial structures combined, and looking at how cardiovascular disease burden and mortality and morbidity is disproportionately affecting Black women at earlier ages and greater rates, I’m looking to see how we can intervene on these stressors,” Kalinowski said. “That’s really the crux of my research: how we can develop and design interventions that might be able to address these stressors.” 

Kalinowski chose the field in part because of her identity as a Black woman and a first-generation American, which gave her an insight into how health disparities play out in real life. She said she was also drawn to the interdisciplinary nature of her work. 

“When I was in college, I wanted to major in everything because I thought everything was important,” Kalinowski said. “Obviously, that wasn’t possible, but I did find an interdisciplinary major called Communications, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government. What that did was really help me understand the importance of looking at things through an interdisciplinary lens.” 

As for why she chose to look into cardiovascular disease in particular, Kalinowski said that it was a combination of heart disease being a leading cause of death in the U.S. and the disproportionate rates of heart disease among Black women.  

“Hypertension, which is one of the biggest risk factors in cardiovascular disease, is particularly high in Black women, suggesting there’s something to address on a higher level in this particular population,” Kalinowski said. “None of the disparities that we see are solely attributable to biological and genetic factors, suggesting that there must be something, potentially environmentally, going on that may be exacerbating these disparities.” 

Both Talbert and Kalinowski stressed the universal importance of these issues as part of the reason why they chose their fields.  

“Systemic racism is a fundamental cause of health disparities. Systemic racism explains why research finds that Black infants are more likely to die before their first birthday, why studies show that Black women have higher maternal mortality rates, and why Black Americans are disproportionately likely to have hypertension,” Talbert said. “My research aims to improve understanding of the social forces that shape health disparities, and ultimately, to promote health equity via effective interventions.” 

As for Kalinowski, she said that the problems associated with health disparities were just too pressing to ignore.  

“It became clear to me not only as a member of this particular group, but as a global citizen: I could not let these disparities pass me by without doing my best to take action on them.” 

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