Five Questions with Carmen Samuel-Hodge
Carmen Samuel-Hodge is looking for her ‘next right answer.’
Name: Carmen Samuel-Hodge
Position: Research assistant professor, Department of Nutrition
Time at UNC Gillings: I came here in 1992 as a student, and I’ve been on the faculty since 2003.
What I do at the Gillings School (and what I like about it): Essentially, I do lifestyle intervention research with lower-income and minority populations. I work primarily in diabetes self-management and prevention as well as related cardiovascular disease prevention.
One of the great parts of working here (besides the research opportunities) has been my path to mentoring. [Editor: In 2015, Carmen won a University Award for the Advancement of Women for mentoring women of color.]
It all began with Dr. Shiriki Kumanyika, who at the time was an emeritus professor of epidemiology in the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. In 2002, back when I was getting my start, she pulled together a group of black researchers and formed the African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network (AACORN). AACORN is a national network that seeks to improve the quantity, quality and effective translation of research on weight issues in African American communities.
That collaboration and networking opportunity was key for me as a young researcher and as a black woman, so I was happy to return the favor when Shiriki later connected me to a postdoc at UNC who was struggling with feeling isolated among other researchers and postdocs.
That postdoc and I routinely met to have tea and check in, and then one day she invited someone else, and then another day, a third woman came, and I found myself thinking, “Wait! You mean everybody needs to talk?!” And that is the organic way in which I found myself leading Sistah-Docs. There never was a grand plan, and it remains very informal – we (including doctoral students and postdocs) often meet over Google Hangout, and I do all the mentoring work on my time, on my lunch breaks. The thing is, we need as many good researchers of color as we can get, people who have the contextual insight to answer public health questions for our communities. If those researchers need a role model, then I will be one for them.
I got into my field of study because: I had gotten frustrated with the limitations of working as a dietitian in the Virgin Islands, which are my home. Most of my patients were diagnosed with hypertension, but over time, I found that diabetes was becoming more and more prevalent – I kept seeing more and more cases of patients with both diabetes and hypertension. I thought I should return to school so I could gain a better understanding of this chronic disease (diabetes) and work on solutions that would impact both prevention and self-management.
When I arrived at the Gillings School in ’92, no one was studying diabetes in the Department of Nutrition. A few people were researching cardiovascular disease prevention, though, and that’s where we linked up. The more I learned, the more I found that it was common practice to identify health disparities but offer no next steps or solutions.
I began talking to black Americans – because I didn’t grow up here, so the culture was new to me – and I started to learn about the unique barriers that people of color face in this country. I applied for a small, $5K grant to learn more. (I remember that I faxed the application to my adviser from a bar on St. John while I was home for vacation!)
I got the grant, and that started me down a path to designing interventions for African-American and low-income populations. The main thing I learned along the way was that much of what had been attributed to race really was an issue of socioeconomic class. To reach lower income and minority populations, I’ve conducted research trials in churches, local health departments and community health centers, I’ve designed interventions with peer counselors, and more recently, I’ve developed and tested a family-centered intervention (with the help of a clinical psychologist) for African Americans with diabetes and their adult family members. This work is the crux of the Family PALS program.
To start a conversation with me: just say, “I was listening to NPR…” and we’ll be off and running! They talk about so many interesting things on that station. I used to make my kids listen to it in the car. They sometimes wanted to turn it off, because they said the news was too sad. I told them, “You don’t have to feel sad; you do have to be aware.” NPR does so much to create more engaged world citizens.
My best advice for students is: to go where you are needed. When I was considering moving away from St. John, I really was wrestling with leaving my family and community behind. On the other hand, there simply were no opportunities for professional advancement. A nurse who I worked with said to me, “Your gifts are your gifts. Your job is to use them to serve people. If there are barriers to doing that here, go where you can make a difference.” I did, and I believe I have.
I’d also say:
- Respect the population you serve. Do not work “for” people; work with them.
- Train in the academy, but practice in the real world. Combine what you learn in your training with what people in the community are telling you. Respect different forms of knowledge.
- Get comfortable with complexity and ambiguity. If you think you have one simple solution to a public health problem, you are wrong.
- Remember that there are enough questions for everyone. As you compete for funding, keep your principles and remember that you are modeling behaviors other see and may emulate!
- There are many right answers. Our job is to eliminate the bad options and then choose – from the multiple good options – which approach best fits a specific context.
If a crystal ball could tell me the truth about one thing: I’d ask, on a really personal level, “What’s next?”
I just turned 60, and I’ve been thinking about the unhealthy work ethic that is so common in the academy. Your weekends aren’t really yours, and you get so caught up in the momentum of seeking more funding and publishing more papers that you never stop and say, “Are there more balanced ways for me to contribute?” When my family moved to North Carolina, my husband didn’t really want to live in this country. I kept telling him we’d move home to the Virgin Islands when I was done with my training – it’s been 25 years and we’ve ultimately reconciled that now we have two homes!
So, my question is: What’s next? Where and how can I contribute to work that matters while living a more balanced life?
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