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UC Merced Receives $1.3M Award to Create Center for the Study of Health Disparities

September 28, 2009
Grant lays foundation for robust health sciences program to support development of proposed medical school

The University of California, Merced has secured funding to create a center that would research health disparities in ethnic underserved populations and train students interested in health-related careers, officials announced today, Sept. 28.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has awarded $1.3 million over two years to the university to spur the creation of the Center of Excellence for the Study of Health Disparities in Rural and Ethnic Underserved Populations. The grant is funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic recovery package passed by Congress earlier this year.

“UC Merced is the ideal location for research and education on health disparities,” said Chancellor Steve Kang. “Our region offers a natural laboratory for education, training and research in this area.”

The goal of the center of excellence is to increase the number of UC Merced students who are knowledgeable about disparities in health care and health outcomes, improve the number of students from under-represented and disadvantaged groups performing research in this area, and expand the capacity of the university to conduct health sciences research that addresses disparities in the region.

Led by Maria Pallavicini and Jan Wallander, the center will develop a community of students who are nationally competitive candidates for medical school entrance, as well as for other health professions. Additionally, the center will foster expansion of the breadth and depth of health sciences research at UC Merced, which is critical to investigating the complex challenges posed by health disparities in the San Joaquin Valley region, and include a community engagement component that enables students to gain hands-on knowledge and experience.

U.S. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, who represents the 18th Congressional District where UC Merced is located, believes the center has the potential to solve many of the health problems plaguing area residents.

“Merced and the surrounding San Joaquin Valley are grossly underserved when it comes to health services,” Cardoza said. “UC Merced's center for excellence will focus on understanding and treating diseases and conditions that are prevalent here, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, HIV, obesity and diabetes. But what sets this center apart from any other is that researchers will also hone in on the socioeconomic and cultural factors that influence health disparities in the Valley.”

Pallavicini, professor of biology and founding dean of UC Merced's School of Natural Sciences, believes that the center will help increase awareness of the health disparities in the Valley, including the effects of inadequate access.

“Not only will the center draw more students to pursue academic majors in the health sciences, but it will also create a health disparities minor open to all students,” she said. “This will create a competitive pool of graduates who may immediately begin work in the field or pursue advanced study in health sciences.”

As a scientist, Pallavicini is a recognized expert in stem cell biology and cancer who continues to maintain a research laboratory at UC Merced. Pallavicini is also credited with securing nearly $1 million in donations in 2007 to create the Valley Telehealth Partnership, which allows medical specialists to conduct real-time video consultations with patients, regardless of distance.

Wallander is a professor of psychological sciences in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts. He is also co-director of UC Merced's Health Sciences Research Institute with biologist Andy LiWang. Wallander is known internationally as an expert on risk and resilience processes associated with the health, quality of life and well being of children and adolescents, particularly those affected by pediatric disease or disability.

“As a researcher, I am committed to discovering methods to ensure every child has the best quality of life possible, despite disease or poverty,” Wallander said. “The San Joaquin Valley's diverse population, narrow economic base, low level of educational attainment and abundant health issues are very real problems, but they combine to make this a very useful place to investigate causes of health disparities - and also to solve those disparities so that every man, woman and child experiences fewer threats to their health, and when needed, has access to top-notch health care.”

In addition to serving the immediate needs of Valley residents, the Center of Excellence for the Study of Health Disparities in Rural and Ethnic Underserved Populations also will help to continue building the base of UC Merced's interdisciplinary academics, support the positive growth that is critical to the campus as a whole and to continue to lay the research foundation that is critical to the establishment of UC Merced's proposed medical school.

“It's very exciting for UC Merced to have achieved the first major milestone in the process of bringing a top-notch medical school to the San Joaquin Valley,” Kang said. “We have come a long way in the five years since our campus opened, and we have the support of our dedicated faculty, students, staff and friends in the community to thank for that.”

Planning for a medical school at UC Merced began long before students arrived at the university in fall 2005 and was accelerated with the release of two University of California health sciences reports that echoed concerns expressed by a number of national organizations about a projected nationwide shortage of physicians.

“Improving access to health care is a top priority, because it affects everyone,” Cardoza said. “UC Merced's plans to attract students interested in health sciences will benefit everyone in this region by increasing the pool of qualified workers, and it will serve as a needed building block to bring a medical school to the Valley.”

In February, the Washington Advisory Group — commissioned by UC Merced — completed a report recommending that the university employ a phased approach to building a medical school program, beginning with an undergraduate health sciences program that attracts exceptional students and creates a foundation for graduate-level study in the field. The center's goals fall within that recommendation.

In their role as co-principal investigators, both Pallavicini and Wallander will develop and oversee research, education and training for the program. They will be assisted by UC Merced professors LiWang, who will oversee graduate student training on health disparities research, and Rudy Ortiz, who will have oversight of undergraduate research in health disparities.

Steve Roussos, president of Merced's Community Partnership Alliance (CPA), will serve as lead of community engagement in research and training. Roussos, a public health researcher and community advocate, helped UC Merced establish a university-community pledge in 2003 documenting UC Merced's objectives to reduce disparities in education, economic development and health.

“Even before enrolling its first class, UC Merced has served as a regional and state leader and role model for community partnership to address socio-economic challenges,” Roussos said. “The establishment of a center on health disparities enables UC Merced to continue its tradition of community engagement, draw national funding and support to our region, and engage leaders from all sectors in research to improve individual and population-level health.”