Few understand those who call the Sea Islands of South Carolina home more than Ida Spruill. As a researcher, she’s made it her mission to help Sea Islanders by studying their genetic history, increasing their health literacy and researching the role genetics plays in their lives.
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A native of South Carolina’s Pee Dee region, Spruill has a long history of interacting with Sea Island populations in the state. She has received many awards for her pioneering work. Spruill is the recipient of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), MUSC Developing Scholar Award, S.C. Nursing Palmetto Gold Award and the Trailblazer Award from the National Black Nurses Association.
From 1995 to 2003, she was the nurse-manager for Project SuGar or Sea Island Genetic African American Registry, a community-based genetic research study. The scientific goal of the project was to isolate and identify genes responsible for the expression of Type 2 diabetes and obesity among Sea Islanders.
The project resulted in the creation of a DNA and clinical database that included 650 families and a recruitment model specific to Sea Islanders known as Community, Plan, Reward (CPR). Although, the project is no longer actively enrolling participants, Spruill has continued to focus her research efforts on issues concerning the Sea Island population via the Sea Islands Families Project, an umbrella of support for investigators interested in genetics/genomic research among the Sea Islanders (i.e. research on lupus, periodontal disease, obesity, breast cancer, telemedicine and diabetes).
Project SuGar was the catalyst for bringing genetic research to the Sea Islands. Spruill is impressed with the resiliency and intact culture of the population.
“I think it’s a population that’s been misunderstood and exploited unnecessarily over the years, yet we have so much we can learn from them. The Sea Islanders endured cultural and geographical isolation, segregation and Jim Crow laws. As a result of their sheer will and survival skills, they were able to survive. “
Spruill is also interested in the health seeking behaviors of Sea Islanders.
“If you do not understand the cultural beliefs that drive health behaviors, then we cannot develop interventions within the context of the culture. Therefore, we run the risk of clients not showing up for appointments, failing to follow health recommendations, wearing a mask to hide their true feelings and literacy level."
Spruill’s future research interests cover a wide range of health disparities research. Her current study examines variations in health literacy among the African-American population in four specific regions of South Carolina (Blue Ridge Mountain, Central Midlands, Pee Dee, and Coastal Plains). The ultimate goal is the creation of a tool that will take into account individuals’ illness perceptions, spirituality, preferences and cultural beliefs to develop more effective interventions within the context of the cultural.
“My ultimate goal as a nurse scientist is to identify and implement programs to improve health outcomes for vulnerable populations.”