XULA Professors and Alums Seek Equity, Awarded Grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Courtesy of Xavier University of Louisiana

Xavier University of Louisiana is among the country’s top 10 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in terms of National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding. Xavier professors Dr. LaKeisha Williams and Dr. Sara Al-Dahir are among Xavier’s faculty members aiming to strengthen communities and improve health equity by working alongside federally qualified healthcare clinics, neighborhood associations, independent pharmacies, and faith-based organizations in New Orleans and worldwide.

Xavier’s NIH grants— Research Centers for Minority Institutions (RCMI), Louisiana Community Engagement Alliance (LA-CEAL), Tomosynthesis Mammographic Image, Screen and Trial (TMIST), and Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics for Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) support vulnerable and minority communities across Louisiana. These grants address COVID-19 vaccination and testing, education, and minority inclusion in clinical trials. The contributions of Xavier’s faculty and alums in support of communal health reinforce the university’s mission to create a more just, humane society.

Dr. Gene D’Amour, Xavier’s Special Assistant to President and Provost, is part of RCMI. RCMI, awarded to Xavier yearly from the NIH’s National Institute for Minority and Health Disparities, funds university research, surveys, and focus groups. Dr. D’Amour shares the significant work Xavier is conducting to engage communities nationwide.

“There’s a lot going on at Xavier when it comes to developing research with underprivileged communities, and it’s all beautifully consistent with Xavier’s mission. We’re conducting analysis, data, and working with communication experts to help encourage vaccination and helping communities know where to get vaccinated,” said Dr. D’Amour. “The percentage of our faculty that are involved in this research has dramatically expanded. We’re not only big in terms of our educational programs, but we are also getting to the same point with our research programs.”

Dr. LaKeisha Williams (‘02 and ‘09) is a Clinical Associate Professor in Xavier’s College of Pharmacy. She is a Xavier alumna, graduating with both her Bachelor of Science and Doctor of Pharmacy from the institution. She holds several leadership positions at Xavier, including director of Xavier’s Center of Health Disparities and head of Xavier’s community engagement core. She is also head of the LA-CEAL project, an ongoing collaboration with Tulane University.

Dr. Williams and Xavier faculty members Dr. D’Amour, Dr. Sara Al-Dahir, Dr. William Kirchain, Dr. Janel Bailey-Wheeler, Dr. Raven Jackson, Ms. Adrienne Mitchell, and Ms. Tynesia Fields have worked on LA-CEAL since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This allowed Xavier to lead community engagement by working with organizations to fight against and provide information on COVID-19, address barriers and aid community members. The collaborative efforts of Xavier and Tulane on LA-CEAL helped community organizations create health fairs, outreach activities and back-to-school functions for the community. These events also provided COVID-19 vaccinations, vaccinating over 500 attendees.

“I’m a proud Xavier graduate, so I’m proud of the work we’ve been doing in the community and beyond,” said Dr. Williams.

Xavier’s research collaborations help the NIH form the best intervention methods to improve community healthcare. There are plans to continue health collaborations and develop a network of healthcare professionals, students and faculty to bridge gaps in healthcare accessibility.

“We noticed from COVID-19 that the maintenance of many people’s health had decreased because they didn’t have access to providers or health screenings,” said Dr. Williams. “Bringing in networks we have on campus, such as our telehealth and wellness center, will allow us to identify people who do not have healthcare providers and connect them with one. This will also allow us to educate community members, whether through increasing medication compliance or helping to improve mental and physical health.”

Dr. Williams also works with TMIST, collaborating with Louisiana State University (LSU) Health Science Center. TMIST aims to increase breast cancer screenings and inclusive participation in clinical trials. Xavier faculty involved with TMIST also includes Dr. Jasmin Eugene and Ms. Tynesia Fields, as well as Xavier grad and LSU faculty member Dr. Shawn McKinney (‘93). Other LSU faculty members working on the grant include Dr. Brooke Morrell, Dr. Mignonne Morrell, and Ms. Joann Cassama. TMIST aims to raise community awareness of available breast cancer screening opportunities, such as 3D mammograms.

“Minority and Black women are disproportionally affected by and die from aggressive forms of cancer, such as Triple-Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC), because minority women have different density in their breast tissue,” said Dr. Williams. “2D mammograms may not necessarily see tumors women may have. 3D mammograms are amazing because they allow us to see breast tissue better and show different angles of what may be hidden.”

Black women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with TNBC and often do not have available treatment options, serving as a disadvantage for Black and minority populations. Increased breast cancer screenings and diversity in clinical trials are crucial to improving health outcomes and reducing breast cancer health disparities. Dr. Williams emphasizes the importance of community involvement as formulating trust with community members is vital to successful health outcomes.

“To know how to best treat minority populations, we must get people involved in clinical trials. TMIST offers breast cancer screenings, MRI screenings, and others that, due to pricing, tend to not be as available,” said Dr. Williams. “Raising awareness about clinical trials will help so many women have conversations with healthcare providers about breast cancer, ask questions, and learn of different options regarding testing and screenings.”

Dr. Al-Dahir (‘06) is a clinical professor in Xavier’s College of Pharmacy and works with LA-CEAL. She received her Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Xavier after earning both her Bachelor of Science and a Master of Public Health and Epidemiology from Tulane University and her Doctor of Public Health from John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She also has board certification and training in infectious diseases.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Al-Dahir and Xavier colleagues Dr. Christopher Gillard, Dr. Brittany Singleton, Dr. Martha Earls, Dr. Cirecie West-Olatunji, and Dr. Daniel Salmon have been part of RADx-UP. RADx-UP assesses barriers to vaccine hesitancy. Conducted nationally, RADx-UP focuses on communication with vulnerable communities and addressing populations experiencing COVID-19 disparities, such as African American, Spanish, and Native American communities.

Another RCMI supplement consisting of Dr. Al-Dahir, Dr. Brittany Singleton, Dr. Ashley Taylor, Dr. Katrina Nguyen, Dr. Klaus Heyer, and Dr. Daniel Salmon addresses COVID-19 vaccine education to increase vaccine uptake in vulnerable communities. This supplement looks at delivering vaccine education at the point of COVID-19 testing to study barriers and vaccination encouragement.

“The core of these grants has been community engagement, community participation, and community accountability. These projects work under national umbrellas to coordinate research strategies and tools in support of vulnerable communities. It’s really an amazing consortium of individuals dedicated to COVID-19 diagnostics and vaccination,” said Dr. Al-Dahir.

Dr. Al-Dahir expressed accountability as the most significant component of these grant approaches. She emphasizes community involvement as key to achieving successful community research and that community research must be inclusive.

“There’s a saying ‘not about us without us,’ which means do not come into our communities to conduct research or develop policies unless those communities are part of the conversation. The community should not only have multiple seats at the table, but be the pillars of the table,” said Dr. Al-Dahir.

In 2018, Dr. Al-Dahir conducted research training on vaccine equity. As she studied and performed research collaboratives internationally, her interest in vaccines and disparities proved critical as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe.

“I translated what I learned about traditional barriers to vaccine uptake, equity, and distribution and applied it to our projects. What was unique about the Xavier RADx-UP team was where everyone else focused on COVID-19 testing, we focused on COVID-19 vaccine uptake prior to the development and release of the vaccine,” shared Dr. Al-Dahir. “We had a lot of foresight and knew there were tremendous vaccine uptake inequities based on race and socioeconomic status.”

The great effort and dedication of Xavier’s faculty and alums leave a lasting impact on communities. The grants endowed for them to continue their work help create opportunities for all to receive optimal healthcare, supporting underserved communities and improving health equity while mitigating disparities.