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NSF-funded project to study minority health disparities

jbrehm2, March 30, 2015 | View original publication

NSF-funded project to study minority health disparities

A National Science Foundation grant will fund a new summer research program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that aims to train the next generation of scientists in both minority health disparities and social network analysis, a key technique of research in sociology.

Each summer, 10 undergraduate students from throughout the United States will be selected to participate in the 10-week program. The first two weeks the students will be in a workshop to train them in social network analysis, which is the mapping and measuring of relationships among groups of individuals, organizations or other entities. The students will then use those new skills to work with a mentor on a research project related to minority health disparities.

The three-year, $350,000 grant will fund a Research Experience for Undergraduates program through NSF. REUs, as funded by the NSF, support active research participation by undergraduate students in areas of research funded by the National Science Foundation; however, UNL hosts additional REUs each summer that are not NSF funded.

Kirk Dombrowski, professor of sociology, will lead the program, which will feature mentors from several academic areas, including sociology, communication studies, psychology, the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Because network analysis is a computational science, Dombrowski said, students also will work with computer scientists.

The program is the only REU funded by NSF in the nation to explore minority health disparities. The subject matter also helped attract some of the best students in the nation — there were 183 applicants, of which 68 percent were from historically under-represented groups and 75 percent were women. 

"We are really excited because we had a tremendous applicant pool," Dombrowski said. "It was difficult to choose only 10."

Dombrowski said students from traditionally underrepresented groups were not specifically recruited, but that the subject area fueled interest.

"This is an opportunity to do cutting-edge research in minority health and that was enough to bring us a high number of applicants from historically underrepresented groups," Dombrowski said. "We’ve shown there is funding and support to do work in these areas, and it’s attracted really talented people that also have a passion for this."

It’s also unusual in that the students will in some cases be the experts on their research teams in network analysis once they have finished the workshops.

"Some of the mentors are not as familiar with network analysis and these students will be able to lend this new knowledge," Dombrowski said. "It’s bridging a knowledge gap and also building bridges between faculty and disciplines."

Dombrowski said he hopes the students’ experience in the program will lead them to consider UNL for graduate school.

"This is an opportunity for us to be able to reach out to students who might not think about coming to UNL and show them that this is a fine place to be with good support, good colleagues and a good mentoring environment," he said. "We want to be on their radar for graduate school decisions because these are excellent students."