Grants of note

It’s a Grant Quintet for Public Health

Six faculty members in four departments at Pitt’s School of Public Health have scored major National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants in recent weeks, accounting for nearly $16 million in R01 funding to develop new statistical approaches for analyzing complex data sets and for studies targeting health disparities and campus sexual violence. Known as research project grants, R01 awards are considered a significant measure of an investigator’s achievement in their chosen field.

Awardees are:

Julie Donohue, PhD 

Professor and chair, Department of Health Policy and Management
“Improving Racial Equity in Opioid Use Disorder Treatment in Medicaid”                                              
National Institute on Drug Abuse

In recent years, the overdose death rate has risen nearly twice as fast for Black people as compared to White people, a disparity that has only widened during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, Black and Hispanic people are far less likely to have medication prescribed as part of any addiction treatment plan—a difference that can fundamentally affect prospects for recovery.

Using $5.5 million in funding over three and a half years, Dr. Donohue and her team will investigate differences among approaches to opioid use disorder treatment by location, providers, plans and policies covered by Medicaid in 11 states. The project capitalizes on university-Medicaid agency partnerships in the Medicaid Outcomes Distributed Research Network, which represents 22% of all U.S. Medicaid enrollees and 28% of overdose deaths.

“We’re looking for the most promising strategies for addressing inequities in addiction treatment” says Donohue. “Our partnerships with state Medicaid agencies allow us to share findings directly with policy makers who can act on them.”

Co-investigators on the project include Marian Jarlenski, PhD, MPH; Evan Cole, PhD, MPH; Chung-Chou Chang, PhD; Lu Tang, PhD; Eric Roberts, PhD; Coleman Drake, PhD; J. Deanna Wilson, MD, MPH; and Utibe Essien, MD, all of Pitt. 

Ying Ding, PhD

Associate professor of biostatistics
“New Statistical Methods and Software for Modeling Complex Multivariate Survival Data with Large-Scale Covariates”
National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Funded by $1.2 million over four years, Dr. Ding and colleagues will develop new statistical and machine-learning methods and software tools to parse complex data sets from studies with many variables, including risk factors, disease progression and survival outcomes.  The purpose is to increase the reliability of approaches to precision medicine.

“The aim of precision medicine is to tailor the best treatment to every patient based on their unique needs,” says Ding. “New statistical tools and machine-learning methods that make sense of large amounts of data can help us come closer to that goal.”   

Their project aims to produce a comprehensive methodological framework with ready-to-use software packages to improve data analysis. These methodologies will first be applied to ongoing age-related macular degeneration and Alzheimer’s disease research at the University of Pittsburgh to help identify risk factors and assess treatment effects on disease progression, recurrence or prevention.

Co-investigators on the project are Jong J. Jeong, PhD; Wei Chen, PhD; Robert Sweet, MD; and Heng Huang, PhD, all of Pitt.

Christina Mair, PhD, MPH

Associate professor of behavioral and community health sciences
“Collaborator-Designed Agent-Based Models to Inform Alcohol-Involved Sexual Violence Prevention on College Campuses”
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Despite increasing awareness over the past decade, alcohol-involved sexual violence remains a widespread concern on college campuses, with 1 in 4 female undergraduates reporting sexual assaults during college, according to a survey done by the Association of American Universities.

“Many college students are away from home for the first time. It’s natural for them to test boundaries and excessive drinking is a part of that,” says Mair. “We need better tools to help us reduce the risks of sexual violence.”

With more than $2 million over five years, Dr. Mair’s team will work with students, campus counselors and Title IX coordinators on 28 college campuses in Pennsylvania and West Virginia to develop an accurate model that simulates the dynamic relationship between unsafe alcohol consumption and sexual violence risk. The effectiveness of different interventions will be evaluated using this model to provide decision-support tools to inform programmatic changes and policy improvements to reduce alcohol-involved sexual violence.

Co-investigators on the project include Robert Coulter, PhD, MPH; Jessica Burke, PhD, MHS; Elizabeth Miller, MD, PhD; and Mary Krauland, PhD, all of Pitt.

Dara Mendez, PhD, MPH

Associate professor of epidemiology

Marian Jarlenski, PhD, MPH

Associate professor of health policy and management

“The Effects of Medicaid Policy Interventions on Racial Equity in Severe Maternal Morbidity”
National Institute of Nursing Research

Black pregnant people are two to three times as likely to die of common pregnancy complications than their White counterparts, according to the American Public Health Association.

Funded by $3.8 million over five years, the project will determine the influence of Black population-focused Medicaid policies on racial disparities in rates of maternal illness and death in Pennsylvania. Specifically, Mendez and her team, including collaborators from the Pennsylvania Doula Commission and Healthy Start Pittsburgh, will consider three Medicaid health care demonstration programs such as incentive payments to promote enhanced prenatal and maternity care and coverage of doula services.

“To achieve these policy goals, it will be critical to understand how they are being implemented—particularly processes for centering racial equity and Black populations,” says Dr. Mendez.

Study results are expected to pinpoint the effects of these enhancements on Black maternal health, in turn informing future policies intended to improve health equity among Medicaid recipients.

Mendez and Marian Jarlenski, PhD, MPH, are coprincipal investigators on the project. Co-investigators include Jeanine Buchanich, PhD, MPH, MEd; Evan Cole, PhD, MPH; and Cynthia Salter, PhD, MPH, all of Pitt. 

Jaime Sidani, PhD, MPH

Assistant professor of behavioral and community health sciences
“Nicotine and Tobacco Misinformation on Youth-Oriented Social Media Platforms”
National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities

Using $3.1 million over five years, Dr. Sidani and her team will investigate the association between nicotine- and tobacco-related misinformation on youth-oriented social media platforms, e.g., Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube, and the risk of increased nicotine usage, particularly among Black, Hispanic or sexual and gender minority teenagers.

“Taking up nicotine and tobacco products in adolescence is associated with heavier use as time goes on, with increased risks of nicotine addiction, cancer and adverse effects on brain development,” says Sidani. “We want to do what we can to counter misinformation with valid health messages and, ultimately, reduce nicotine-related health disparities among minority youth."

Sidani and her interdisciplinary team have been studying youth attitudes and behaviors surrounding these products for more than 10 years. The current project will make use of a youth collaborative of 20 individuals recruited as scientific partners to help assess misleading social media messages and surveys of a larger group of teens aged 13-17.

Co-investigators on the project include Kar-Hai Chu, PhD; Maya Ragavan, MD, MPH; Cesar Escobar-Viera, MD, PhD; Elizabeth Miller, MD, PhD; and Esa Davis, MD, MPH, all of Pitt, and Ariel Shensa, PhD, of Duquesne University.