Confronting racism head-on: MCHRI launches research grants aimed at reducing health disparities

MCHRI launched the Structural Racism, Social Injustice and Health Disparities in Maternal and Child Health Pilot Awards in 2020. Five award recipients were selected, including R. Sharon Chinthrajah, MD, for her project to improve racial diversity in food allergy programs. (Photo courtesy of R. Sharon Chinthrajah)

April 9, 2021

By Laura Hedli

Longstanding, underlying health disparities in America became glaringly apparent once the COVID-19 pandemic began last March. Then, on Memorial Day, the death of George Floyd ignited a nationwide social justice movement with weeks of protests against police brutality and racial bias.

Soon after, the Maternal and Child Health Research Institute (MCHRI) launched a new grant called Structural Racism, Social Injustice and Health Disparities in Maternal and Child Health Pilot Awards. Including the word “racism” in the title was intentional – a choice made by the Director of MCHRI Mary Leonard, MD, MSCE, in partnership with MCHRI executive leadership and its administrative team.

The MCHRI pilot awards of $35,000 are designed to fund year-long projects that focus on the drivers of health disparities and propose action-oriented solutions to promote equity. Five inaugural award recipients began work on their projects in January 2021. More will be chosen this spring with an award start date of July 1, 2021.    

“We believe that those of us who care for children and pregnant women should be at the forefront of addressing racism, social injustice, and poverty as core determinants of health that impact a child for life,” says Dr. Leonard, who is also the Chair of the Department of Pediatrics and Adalyn Jay Physician-in-Chief at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford (LPCH). “We want to do the research that provides the evidence to drive change in health policy. That's where MCHRI comes into the whole health equity equation here at Stanford.”

Eric Sibley, MD, PhD, and Carmin Powell, MD

The genesis of the MCHRI health disparities pilot awards began in 2019 when Professor of Pediatrics (Gastroenterology) and Associate Chair of Academic Affairs Eric Sibley, MD, PhD, was investigating research funding for those who work within the space of diversity, equity, and inclusion. He realized there were very few targeted opportunities available for U.S. medical school faculty.

Wanting to bolster institutional support at Stanford, Dr. Sibley began conversations with Dr. Leonard and Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics Carmin Powell, MD, who serves as the Department of Pediatrics Co-Liaison to the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity. Together, they drafted initial plans for building a more diverse workforce at Stanford School of Medicine (SoM) and also creating a funding mechanism for faculty specifically interested in studying health disparities.

“This is scholarship that has always existed, and particularly faculty of diverse backgrounds – Black, Latino/x, Asian, Indigenous and all marginalized cultural/ethnic groups – are often doing this work in addition to all of their research demands," says Dr. Powell, who was mentored and supported by Dr. Sibley in her journey from trainee to junior faculty member at Stanford working with underserved communities at Watsonville community hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). “This new MCHRI grant is now being carved out in a very purposeful and intentional way, and I was happy to help support that and give some of my perspective as well.”

Lisa Chamberlain, MD, MPH, and Anisha Patel, MD, MSPH

Once the events of spring 2020 accelerated interest in the grant, Dr. Leonard recruited Co-Program Chairs, Professor of Pediatrics and Associate Chair of Policy and Community Engagement Lisa Chamberlain, MD, MPH, and Associate Professor of Pediatrics Anisha Patel, MD, MSPH. Both are renowned for their work to reduce child health disparities and are recipients of MCHRI’s distinguished Faculty Scholar Award.

As Co-Program Chairs for the new grant, Drs. Chamberlain and Patel were tasked with assembling a review committee. Instead of going the traditional route of inviting faculty to serve on the committee, they opened a call for anyone interested to apply. Twenty-five people within the SoM offered to volunteer their time, the reviewer pool being more diverse than usual and the outpouring of interest indicative of the Stanford community’s desire to make an impact in this area. Ultimately, 10 reviewers were selected and they reviewed 12 proposals for the five inaugural awards.

Those involved in drafting the request for applications felt strongly that successful proposals should do more than just document inequities, many of which are already well described. Instead, the pilot awards are designed to support research that aims to understand why racial disparities exist and takes action. Community involvement is a key element.

“To have a true impact on inequities, you really need to work with the communities that are affected to understand their perspectives and to also understand what are the important questions to even ask,” Dr. Patel says. Together, Stanford investigators will work with community partners, like non-profit organizations, school systems, or policymakers, to gather data and then use that data for good to change policies and practice.

Those best, smartest solutions are going to come from your community partners.

“Those best, smartest solutions are going to come from your community partners,” Dr. Chamberlain says.

April 19 is the deadline for submitting a proposal for the next round of health disparities pilot awards. For interested applicants who have an idea for a project yet are unsure where to begin, Dr. Chamberlain recommends watching a recording of an information session she and Dr. Patel hosted in February and reaching out to the Office of Community Engagement (OCE). The OCE offers resources for Stanford researchers to conduct community-based research and helps them cultivate partnerships with the community to understand and address the social, environmental, behavioral, and biological factors that impact population health.

The MCHRI’s decision to launch a new funding mechanism that mobilizes community involvement and confronts racism head-on is forward-thinking, Dr. Chamberlain explains. “It's investing in people to grow them in a direction that we think is important as a department and an institution,” she says, “which is to help narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots in the big picture.”

The following are the inaugural awardees for the MCHRI health disparities pilot awards:

  • Natali Aziz, MD, MS, Clinical Associate Professor, Obstetrics & Gynecology (Maternal-Fetal Medicine)
    Study Title: COVID-19 Household Transmission and Social Determinants of Health in Pregnancy
  • Erica Pasciullo Cahill, MD, MS, Clinical Assistant Professor, Obstetrics & Gynecology (Gynecology & Family Planning)
    Study Title: Patient Evaluation of an Anti-Racism Perinatal Tool
  • R. Sharon Chinthrajah, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine
    Study Title: Improving Racial Diversity in our Food Allergy Programs
  • Michael C. Frank, PhD, Associate Professor, Psychology
    Study Title: Measuring Children's Early Vocabulary Using Large Scale Data from Diverse Families
  • Priya Prahalad, MD, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor, Pediatrics (Endocrinology and Diabetes)
    Study Title: Telehealth Delivery to Change the Paradigm of Care Delivery in Children with Type 1 Diabetes

To read highlights of awardees, click on the capsules below.

R. Sharon Chinthrajah, MD
Clinical Associate Professor, Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine

Michael C. Frank, PhD
Associate Professor, Psychology


Priya Prahalad, MD, PhD
Clinical Assistant Professor, Pediatrics

Laura Hedli is a writer for the Division of Neonatal and Developmental Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics and contributes stories to the Stanford Maternal and Child Health Research Institute.