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20/20 vision: Learning from our past, leading our present, and preparing for our future

Patricia Jones
Patricia JONES,
Office of Special Populations (OSP)

This year marks anniversaries of significant human rights achievements. For example, 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment in which women earned the right to vote after a decades-long fight. And it is the 100th anniversary of baseball’s Negro Leagues, in which African American players exercised their right to play and demonstrated their athletic talent and acumen on the field. While the circumstances differed, in both cases, progress was made only because groups of individuals found the strength to persevere despite discrimination and multiple other obstacles.

From a public health perspective, for the first time in more than a century the world is grappling with a pandemic caused by a previously unknown pathogen, the novel coronavirus. Sadly, there are unfortunate parallels to our past: While COVID-19 may be new, it has underscored long-standing health disparities for groups in our society who have been disenfranchised from many opportunities and underrepresented in clinical trials and studies.

The health disparities observed among African American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and other communities throughout the U.S. underscore the importance of recognizing the social determinants of health and gaining better understanding of how they affect outcomes. As NIA’s new director of the Office of Special Populations (OSP) — an African American woman with multiple degrees in a range of areas from Women’s Studies, Biotechnology, and Public Health — I am embracing opportunities to collaborate with my NIA colleagues to build upon their work to advance health equity.

In my new role, I am excited to expand existing efforts to advance diversity in aging research. I am pleased that the NIA Health Disparities Research Framework demonstrates NIA’s commitment to funding aging research across a wide range of environmental, sociocultural, biological, and behavioral factors. It is important not only for researchers to understand and address health disparities, but also for the research workforce itself to be as diverse and inclusive as possible.

I look forward to working with colleagues across NIH more broadly to support an extensive range of training and career development opportunities for investigators dedicated to enhancing diversity in our field. Earlier this summer, OSP successfully convened its first-ever virtual Butler-Williams Scholars Program, connecting a diverse group of talented and enthusiastic scientists committed to learning more about aging research and finding ways to address health disparities among older adults. NIA has accumulated 34 years of collective wisdom through this program, and I look forward to building on that foundation to support career development and training for the biomedical workforce of the future. OSP also will continue to take part in the NIA Director’s Regional Meetings to further promote these types of training and career development funding opportunities in underserved areas of the country.

As I continue to settle into my new role, I am eager to engage our extramural community to hear what matters to you and how OSP can help to close gaps and overcome obstacles that keep all older adults from living the most full and vibrant lives possible. While we celebrate important accomplishments from a century ago, I welcome your comments below on future possibilities to advance health equity.


Submitted by SAWATENTER KHOSLA on September 09, 2020

It is very nice to see you involving more representations of people from the special populations in clinical trials as also in investigators. This shall bring diversity into the system and help make the new solutions more near to reality. I would like you to focus also more on Prevention in the elderly in people from special populations and have more sharing of knowledge on the same with the readers.

Submitted by Evaristus Nwulia on September 10, 2020

Minority institutions that serve predominantly ethnic minority populations are very crucial to all efforts to address health disparities in older adults. But the relevant research infrastructures are lacking in these minority based institutions. Equipment grants are not frequently awarded to HBCU institutions, leaving them ill-equipped to pursue research geared towards health disparities, unless they collaborate with other institutions such as Johns Hopkins. As an example, while you can find 6 or more labs in an institution to do transcriptome sequencing, you may not find a single one in an HBCU. This issue places investigators from HBCUs in unequal pedestal when competing for funding. Discussing solutions to these long-standing issues may pay dividends in improving health disparity down the road.

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