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Goosby earns K Award to study root of health disparities

jbrehm2, May 11, 2011 | View original publication

Goosby earns K Award to study root of health disparities

Growing up in poverty or experiencing other social inequalities like racial discrimination at an early age no doubt could color a person's perspective on the world. But could experiencing that kind of stress make someone susceptible to disease that's then passed down through generations?

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher has received a nationally competitive grant to study how such social factors affect human biology and contribute to health disparities. The research led by Bridget Goosby, assistant professor of sociology, aims to gather valuable information that could change how Americans understand what it takes to be healthy — far beyond diet and exercise.

"When you're taking about vulnerable populations, it's going to take a lot more than that. This is something much, much more complicated than just these kinds of Band-Aid fixes at the policy level," she said. "We need to figure out how to help families. We need to figure out how to eradicate discrimination and racism, economic inequality — these are all factors that influence people's health."

Goosby has earned a Mentored Research Scientist Development Award, also known as a K01 Award, from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health. The five-year, $562,000 award aims to help exceptional faculty develop as outstanding teacher-scholars and independent researchers.

"She is one of these rising young researchers who is going to achieve national prominence and this is a harbinger of that," said UNL sociology professor Les Whitbeck, known for his own trailblazing work examining health disparities.

Goosby will use the award to receive specialized training in the growing field of biodemography. The area examines from a biological perspective how social experiences affect people and influence health differences in the larger U.S. population. She'll pursue coursework in psychobiology, neurobiology, endocrinology and research methods in human biology. She'll also work closely with mentors, including Whitbeck, and a team of advisers — some of the nation's top scholars in this field — to conduct research and analyze her findings.

Goosby's previous research has examined the mental health of poor populations, and how low birth weight affects high school academic performance and test scores. But she said she was motivated to focus on health disparities after noticing the prevalence of health issues in her own family.

"We know descriptively that this is a problem, but we know a lot less about the mechanisms, or how what happens in our social context gets under our skin and makes us sick," she said. "Sociologists — we talk a lot about the rates and the process, but not necessarily about the biology that's related to it."

Her research specifically will look at health disparities of African-American mothers as compared to white mothers, as well as the adolescent children of both groups.

Goosby emphasized that she isn't talking about racist biology. Race is something that is ascribed to people and is not biological. But differences in life experiences due to a person's racial category affect biology, she said.

"This goes down to the cellular level and it goes across generations," she said. "If you don't help this mother to be healthy, then you've got a long-term problem with the health of the children."