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Health Equity for SCD: Q&A With Kemar Prussien, PhD, Bridge to Faculty Trainee

Published on December 27, 2023 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 3 days 4 hours ago


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Q&A With Kemar Prussien, PhD, Bridge to Faculty Trainee

Participation in the Bridge to Faculty Program will help demystify the academic path from postdoctoral fellow to full professorship for Kemar Prussien, PhD.

Editor's Note: The Bridge to Faculty Program — created and facilitated by the Office of Academic Training and Outreach Programs — prepares diverse postdoc fellows and early-stage scientists for a tenure track faculty position. The goal is to provide wraparound support for senior level trainees from historically underrepresented groups, so they can transition successfully into the workforce, ultimately here at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania. Train and retain, so to speak.

Apply for the 2024 Bridge to Faculty Program by Jan. 15, 2024. See this announcement for complete eligibility requirements and application procedures. Submit your application via REDCap.

In this Q&A, meet our 2023 Bridge to Faculty Trainee, Kemar Prussien, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences under the mentorship of Lisa Schwartz, PhD, and Lamia Barakat, PhD. Her research focuses on identifying barriers and facilitators of the transition to adult medical care for adolescents and young adults (AYAs) with sickle cell disease (SCD), with an emphasis on health equity.

It's fascinating to hear how science careers evolve. Please tell us about your background and what inspired you to choose a career in research and academia.

My commitment to an academic career is fueled by my passion for conducting high quality research with the SCD population, my desire to reduce the gap between academia and communities, and my responsibility to provide opportunities and mentorship to future scientists.

In 2010, I participated in the CHOP Research Institute Summer Scholars Program (CRISSP) for underrepresented students, with a focus on behavioral research with children with SCD and their families. This experience set me on the path to becoming a pediatric psychologist committed to the SCD community. Since then, I have sought many opportunities to learn from the SCD community through research, clinical service, and volunteering.

A position in academic medicine will provide the opportunity for me to help reduce gaps in funding and health disparities in SCD through innovative research to discover targets of intervention that can translate to better clinical care and outcomes.

I saw the necessity of becoming a liaison between academic environments and community organizations because, if left unchecked, the gap between academic achievements and community needs can grow to a daunting distance. After serving two years on the board of the Crescent Foundation — a community-based organization that aims to support young adults with SCD — I am now in my first term as the chairperson of the board to work side-by-side with the CEO on organization initiatives and community-based participatory research.

I benefited greatly from the programs and mentors throughout my academic journey who have provided opportunities for me to practice rigorous research. I wish to contribute to the scientific community by mentoring future scientists and championing programs that provide the infrastructure and financial support to reduce inequities in academia.

It's a competitive and rigorous path to professorship. How will the Bridge to Faculty Program help you navigate it?

Participation in the Bridge to Faculty program will help demystify the academic path from postdoctoral fellow to full professorship. I learned so much about the requirements for faculty applications, promotion, and overall success, during my first six months in the program. It also provides opportunities for direct mentorship by facilitating one-on-one and group meetings with leaders who are involved in the faculty appointment and promotion process.

What led you to choose a research focus in SCD? And what do you aim to achieve with your research?

Growing up, I spent many hours at CHOP as a sibling of children with SCD, and many of my life experiences were framed within this context. Initially, I was hesitant about going into an SCD-focused career due to my personal connection with the community; however, when I was completing the CRISSP program, the late Dr. Kwaku Ohene Frempong encouraged me to do exactly that and for exactly that reason. Dr. Frempong also chose to focus his career and dedicate his life to SCD, due to the impact of SCD on his family. At this critical juncture in my scientific exploration, I decided to take his advice and never look back.

So many young adults with SCD die after transferring to adult medical care. There are many reasons for this, yet one important reason is related to inequities in access to adult care and experiences with implicit bias from healthcare providers. Pain is the primary symptom of SCD, and it can manifest in chronic and acute ways. The literature has shown that Black and African American individuals often receive inadequate pain management in emergency rooms, and AYA with SCD who display accurate knowledge of their pain plan are often viewed as "drug-seekers."

My goal is to enhance health equity and reduce morbidity and mortality for AYAs with SCD by identifying targets of intervention to reduce stress and improve transition to adult care.

What has been the most surprising thing you've encountered career-wise as a scientist?

I am most surprised by the amount of incredible research ideas out there relative to limited research funding. Doctoral and postdoctoral programs continue to produce incredible scientists with great ideas, yet there is still a limited funding pool. This becomes even more challenging when you are working with a patient population that consistently obtains disproportionately lower research funding relative to comparable populations.

Programs like Bridge to Faculty are so important to provide intensive mentorship opportunities and grant-writing training for minority scientists who are less likely to have a seat at the funding table.

What have you enjoyed most from your experience so far in the Bridge to Faculty Program?

Matthew Weitzman, PhD, coordinates a Grant Proposal Success (GPS) group for the Bridge to Faculty scholars and the fellows in the CHOP Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity program. I participated in the GPS group previously as a CHOP diversity fellow, and I am glad to continue my participation this year. Dr. Weitzman has so much knowledge about the grant writing process, but I've also learned from the fellow trainees in the group. Reading their incredible work, seeing how they progress from their first draft to their final draft, and witnessing the amount of funding the group has been able to achieve has been fun. It has made me a better grant writer and grant reviewer.

Where do you see yourself professionally in the next five years and in the long term?

In five years, and in 10 or 20 years, my daily aims will be the same as they have been during the last 10 years: to improve the lives of children, adolescents, and adults with SCD, no matter how "small" the task. I hope to achieve these goals by examining additional provider-level factors in barriers and facilitators of engagement in care. I want to get empirical evidence of this to develop interventions to reduce provider and healthcare bias for the SCD population.

I want to be doing this with the support of a team and research lab filled with high school and undergraduate research assistants, clinical research coordinators, and collaborating doctoral and postdoctoral students. I have obtained amazing mentorship and sponsorship throughout my training, and I am looking forward to inspiring and supporting the next generation of scientists who want to improve health equity for SCD and other pediatric populations.