Research has shown Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, Filipinos and other medically underserved populations in Hawaii have disproportionately higher rates of physical ailments and mental health conditions. And the pandemic has only exacerbated those issues — and spotlighted a lack of community resources.
Addressing these health disparities will require everyone’s help.
That’s exactly the idea behind the newly-formed Center for Pacific Innovations, Knowledge and Opportunities (PIKO) — an innovative collaboration of Hawaii universities, including Chaminade, and organizations that will support critical areas of study and seek to turn research into positive change.
The National Institute of General Medical Sciences awarded the University of Hawaii PIKO a five-year, $15 million grant in which Chaminade University is a partner of the initiative. The funds will be distributed to researchers, especially those at the beginning of their careers, but will also go to professional development opportunities, outreach programming, and other opportunities.
The PIKO partnership includes the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Chaminade University and Hawaii Pacific University — along with the statewide network of organizations. PIKO is led by two UH professors: Dr. Joseph Keaweaimoku Kaholokula, who is chair of Native Hawaiian Health, and Dr. Neal Palafox, whose focus at the John A. Burns School of Medicine includes community health.
Kaholokula said PIKO is focused on improving the health and wellbeing of Hawaii’s people and supporting new research. “This is an unprecedented partnership and initiative in Hawaii to support talented junior researchers in doing culturally responsive and community-engaged research,” he said.
Faculty from Chaminade University who are part of this PIKO project include:
- Dr. Jonathan Baker, assistant professor of Biology, who is one of the leads for tracking and evaluating the grant,
- Dr. Rylan Chong, assistant professor of Data Science, who is the data science lead for the biostatistics, epidemiology and research design core, and
- Dr. Claire Wright, an associate professor of Biology at Chaminade, is the lead who oversees the grant distribution and broadening the center’s reach.
Dr. Claire Wright said the pandemic has magnified the impacts of health disparities on underserved communities and underscored the need for action-oriented research.
“With this grant, we really wanted to focus on where the rubber meets the road,” she said.
In particular, the center and its partnering institutions will be working to recruit and fund more emerging researchers who come from the communities they hope to serve — and give them support along the way. There is also a strong emphasis on engaging community members, Wright said, by partnering with them for research projects and then communicating the results.
She added the center’s goals and the overall grant align with Chaminade’s mission to help build stronger, more resilient communities and to support projects that pursue social justice, peace and equity. “There is a lot of positive impacts you can make in this type of research,” Wright said.
Funding for the first year of the grant is already rolling out, and projects for year two are being sought.
Wright said a call for abstracts is set for December.
She added that she’s optimistic about the positive impact the collaboration is poised to bring about and excited about the prospect of helping to develop more researchers—across a variety of disciplines—who are focused on addressing health disparities. Those researchers will in turn serve as mentors.
“At Chaminade, we have a close relationship with our students,” Wright said. “To be able to show more faculty entrenched in this kind of research, showing their students how they can help with their community, that’s a massive win for Chaminade and for changing their perspectives.”