Highlighting its growth as a center of research on health disparities, North Carolina Central University has convened a three-day conference at which experts and professionals in the field are presenting their findings and exchanging ideas.
The conference, titled “Pursuing Health Equity Through Translational Research and Partnerships,” began Wednesday, April 17, at the Durham Convention Center in downtown Durham and continues through Friday. The conference is intended for a broad audience — not only scientists and researchers, but also policymakers, public health officials, healthcare providers and students. The aim is to promote discussion of issues related to health disparities in communities throughout the nation.
Health disparities — the significant gaps in the health status of racial and ethnic minorities compared with the population as a whole — have been a focus of public health education programs at NCCU since the 1940s. In recent years, the university has built up its resources, faculty and laboratory facilities to support extensive biomedical research in the field as well.
Delivering the keynote address on Thursday morning was Dr. John Ruffin, director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD). The institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, was established as the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities in 2000 and gained full institute status in 2010. It has been under Ruffin’s direction since 2001. A longtime leader in the field of minority health and health disparities, Ruffin is a biologist by training who holds a Ph.D. from Kansas State University. From 1977 until 1990, he was a teacher and administrator at NCCU, a biology professor at first and later dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Ruffin marveled at the changes that have taken place at NCCU since his departure 23 years ago, noting in particular the establishment of two major research facilities, the Julius L. Chambers Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute and the Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE). “You’re doing fantastic work here,” Ruffin said. “You’re competing successfully for grants not just at NIMHD, but also at the National Cancer Institute and other NIH agencies. You can compete with anybody.”
But he added, “You need to do more. You need to expand your research portfolio. Health disparities research is not just biology and chemistry. The entire university can and should get involved — behavioral sciences, criminal justice, law and other disciplines all have a potential role to play.”
The lack of a healthy diet, for example, is a major contributor to poor health among low-income and minority populations, he said. But many low-income people live in neighborhoods where they have no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. “You can’t solve the problem of food deserts in a lab,” he said. In a similar vein, he said, lack of exercise contributes significantly to health disparities — but people who live in unsafe neighborhoods find it difficult to get outside and engage in physical activity.
“You are showing that cutting-edge research is being performed at historically black institutions,” Ruffin concluded. “I can compare then and now, and I’m proud of what I see at NCCU — but we need to kick it up a level.”
The conference continues today at the Durham Convention Center. It includes plenary sessions intended for a general audience and specialized workshops and breakout sessions focusing on aspects of biomedical research, health policy, environmental issues and other areas of inquiry.