Research that motivates change is what keeps Dr. Shiriki Kumanyika inspired each day. Her lifelong goal is to reduce health care disparities affecting African American communities, especially as they relate to obesity and weight management.
As a professor of epidemiology in biostatistics and epidemiology and in pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Kumanyika researches the effects dietary change and weight management have on chronic diseases. Her recent studies and clinical trials focus on preventing or treating obesity among African Americans in clinical or community-based settings.
"I became interested in obesity and nutrition because this is something people can modify to help their health," Kumanyika said. "Nutrition affects everyone, so it's a way for me to reach the whole population. The research I do will, hopefully, make a difference in how many people develop diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses."
Kumanyika also has been involved in many clinical trials on the impact of other dietary changes such as sodium reduction, and she is now completing a weight-control study that is exploring the long-term effect a support system has on a person's ability to lose weight and keep it off. She soon will begin a study to evaluate a feasible weight-loss program model for primary care physicians who serve African American and Latino communities to use with their patients.
"Over the last 20 years, I have been able to create new ways of thinking about African American nutrition and how to address obesity," she said. "There are not many scholars of color in obesity research. I think it's really important for the black community to have people in academic institutions who are seen as experts."
To ensure her legacy of health promotion research and policy change continues, Kumanyika makes it a priority to mentor young African American scientists, researchers and health advocates.
"I work to keep others motivated to change the world for the better through research. Research creates new knowledge or helps us to put the knowledge we have to work in the real world," she said.
Kumanyika also has created the African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network, a group of scholars, researchers in training and community partners dedicated to addressing African American weight, nutrition and physical activity issues in a culturally sensitive and community-responsive manner.
"My efforts alone will not change African American health statistics, but I will feel as if I have made a difference when the proportion of adults who are overweight is lower and fewer children are overweight," Kumanyika said. "I want my efforts to contribute to the broader effort to improve the health profiles in our communities."