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The Catalyst

Health disparities researcher brings worldwide expertise

By Staff Report

Dr. Chanita Hughes-Halbert, Ph.D., is the SmartState Center of Economic Excellence Endowed Chair in Cancer Disparities and faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Hollings Cancer Center Cancer Control Program Leader.

Reducing disparities and enhancing equity through the design and testing of population-specific interventions is at the forefront of the nation’s agenda on minority health and health disparities. For this reason, Chanita Hughes–Halbert, Ph.D., has dedicated her academic career and professional service activities to addressing these issues through systematic research.

Hughes–Halbert always knew she wanted to be a psychologist. From early on she was fascinated with how people thought and wanted to understand why they did the things they did. When she was in graduate school, she had the opportunity to work with a group of researchers, and it had a profound impact of the future direction of her career. “I realized research had the potential to touch people’s lives when findings from a body of research are used to develop the policies for how health care is delivered. I saw first-hand how significant research is — to be a part of a body of work that really does influence how and in what capacity people receive care — that became my calling — to address the issues of minority populations.”

She started her academic career in 1997 after earning her doctorate in personality psychology from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and completing pre- and postdoctoral training in cancer prevention and control at the Georgetown University Medical Center. At Georgetown, as a research assistant, she recognized there was very little participation in research studies or clinical trials by African–Americans.

In 1999, the first report titled “The Unequal Burden of Cancer: An Assessment of NIH Research and Programs for Ethnic Minorities and the Medically Underserved” was released by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Medicine. The results of that study became her personal clarion call to do something about the stark statistics.

Fast forward to today, she said, and things haven’t really changed. “There is still greater mortality for black women with breast cancer and black men with prostate cancer. There is still a need for research - research that moves the needle and thinks about things in a different and innovative way.”

Hughes–Halbert joined MUSC in 2012 in hopes of advancing statewide initiatives in cancer disparities research and programs in South Carolina and making a significant difference in the dismal numbers that still plague African–Americans.

The focus of her research program is to identify sociocultural, psychological, genetic and environmental determinants of minority health disparity (MHD) and to translate this information into interventions to improve equity among racially and ethnically diverse populations and other medically underserved groups.

Within this overarching program, Hughes–Halbert’s research focuses on three converging lines of investigation that include enhancing participation of minorities in prevention and control research; developing culturally tailored assessments and interventions to improve outcomes in minorities and medically underserved populations; and developing sustainable infrastructure for health promotion and disease prevention and control through community–based participatory research methods.

Although Hughes–Halbert’s research program draws primarily upon her core discipline of psychology, her research is multidisciplinary and incorporates the fields of clinical oncology and medical genetics, internal medicine, anthropology, epidemiology, health services research and communication science. She has received more than $20 million in total costs from peer-reviewed federal grants to support her research program. The results of Hughes–Halbert’s research have been published in influential journals in the fields of disease prevention, clinical oncology, medicine, genetics and public health.
Thomas W. Uhde, M.D., chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and executive director of the Institute of Psychiatry, praised Hughes–Halbert for her continued research in public health and health disparities research.

“Dr. Hughes–Halbert is a world leader in the investigation of health disparities research. Her research focuses on a large number of public health issues of particular importance to the citizens of our region. We are honored to have her as a distinguished member of our faculty. Her contributions to science and leadership in the community will undoubtedly lead to earlier diagnosis of those greatest in need of our care.”

Hughes–Halbert was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Board of Scientific Advisors. Hughes–Halbert is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, the AT&T Endowed Chair for Cancer Equity at the Hollings Cancer Center and associate dean for assessment and evaluation in the College of Medicine. She was recruited to MUSC to direct the SmartState Center for Cancer Equity. Hughes–Halbert is also the program leader for Cancer Control at HCC.

Previously, she was a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was an associate professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry and the first African–American woman to be promoted with tenure. Hughes–Halbert was attracted to MUSC because of the opportunity to work across the state of South Carolina and with the Hollings Cancer Center, as well as other centers and departments at MUSC to develop, implement and evaluate local and regional programs to enhance health equity.

In 2014, the NCI awarded a five-year $3.4 million grant to the Hollings Cancer Center to conduct multi-site cancer clinical trials and cancer care delivery research studies that focus on the representation of minority and underserved communities. The grant was awarded under the NCI Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP), a national network of investigators, cancer care providers, academic institutions and other organizations that provide care to diverse populations in community-based health care practices across the United States. Hughes–Halbert and her team will study new therapies for cancer treatment and how cancer care is delivered in statewide communities in South Carolina.

Anthony Alberg, Ph.D., interim director of Hollings Cancer Center and associate director for population sciences, has worked closely with Hughes-Halbert since her arrival on campus and has seen her research grow in both depth and creativity.

“Dr. Hughes–Halbert has dedicated her academic career and professional service activities to improving cancer equity, and she has continually grown the boundaries of her work to better understand the complex causes of cancer disparities” he said. “Thanks to Dr. Hughes–Halbert’s skillful and steadfast leadership, in 2014 the HCC’s Cancer Control Research Program was approved for the very first time and rated highly as part of our NCI designation renewal, a major accomplishment.”

Hughes–Halbert now serves as the principal investigator for the NCI’s Community Oncology Research Program grant for minority and underserved communities, where she is focusing her efforts on further developing HCC’s capacity to enroll minorities across the state in clinical trials, as well as leading the development of an emerging area of research — cancer care delivery research.

Recently, Hughes–Halbert was awarded additional NCI funding for a proposal that she led involving researchers at MUSC, the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and other academic institutions and community organizations within the Southern (mid–Atlantic) region to create a hub for cancer health disparities. This regional hub will establish a regional infrastructure to support CHD research and enhance community engagement; disseminate information about CHD across the mid–Atlantic to stimulate disparities research and educate public health stakeholders, academic investigators and community members about determinants of disparities in medically underserved populations and effective interventions to combat disparities; and increase the pool of investigators in CHD research through professional development, mentoring and education.

Even with these many prominent initiatives on her plate, she still wants to do more. “I met a woman a couple months ago,” she said, “who was a two–time breast cancer survivor. She started a small foundation that concentrates on cancer education and advocacy. It was so striking to me that they really have an intimate, personal relationship with women, and they help them as they’re dealing with their diagnosis and treatment and also their recovery. That is the type of program that we need — what they’re doing at the grassroots, community level. These are the type of programs we need to have as the standard of practice in clinical care. When I hear about the things women are doing just because of their passion and commitment, it makes me even more committed to work within the health care system to establish these types of programs in a way that will be sustainable and have a significant impact on their treatment and the quality of their long-term survivorship.”

The type of dedication and passion Hughes–Halbert brings to her job is not lost on those she works with. Alberg said, “Dr. Hughes–Halbert has a passion for science and inspires great confidence as a researcher, an innovator, and a leader. In sum, she is a difference maker. We are very proud and appreciative to have a researcher of such national prominence as part of the Hollings Cancer Center leadership team.”

MUSC was awarded a National Science Foundation ADVANCE PAID award to advance the careers of women scientists through a Center for the Advancement, Recruitment and Retention of Women In Science (ARROWS). For information, visit

August 28, 2015



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