NIMHD’s Conversations with Principal Investigators at Research Centers in Minority Institutions

As we celebrate Black History Month this year, we are recognizing community-engaged researchers at institutions that are historically committed to training populations underrepresented in science.

Dr. Omonike Arike Olaleye headshot
Dr. Omonike Arike Olaleye

The Research Centers in Minority Institutions (RCMI) program promotes minority health and health disparities research while increasing diversity among scientists and supporting diversity in clinical studies. Its three-tiered research structure offers opportunities for basic, clinical, and/or behavioral research to generate discoveries in minority health and health disparities.

Meet Omonike Arike Olaleye, Ph.D., MPH, principal investigator in minority health and health disparities research.

Dr. Olaleye is a professor of pharmacology and Interim Associate Provost and Associate Vice President for Research at Texas Southern University (TSU). She is principal investigator of TSU’s funded NIH-NIMHD U54 RCMI Center for Biomedical and Minority Health Research (CBMHR). In addition, Dr. Olaleye is TSU’s program director for the HRSA-funded Maternal and Child Health Student Training Program for Academic Readiness and Success (MCH STARS), and co-director of educational, training and community outreach for the Gulf Coast Consortia Center for Comprehensive Pharmacokinetic/Pharmacodynamic (PK/PD) and Formulation. She has extensive expertise in drug discovery and development research spanning more than 20 years, working in major pharmaceutical companies and academia.

Through Dr. Olaleye’s leadership, TSU’s drug discovery and development research has experienced tremendous growth including the development of 18 projects and training programs involving over 31 collaborations/partnerships between TSU faculty and investigators at Texas Medical Center (TMC), pharmaceutical companies, and other research-intensive institutions. Dr. Olaleye’s work has led to the discovery and development of novel therapeutic agents for potential treatment of drug-resistant infections, including vancomycin-resistant infections, multi-drug resistant Tuberculosis (MDR-TB), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and more recently, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Dr. Olaleye is African-American, born in Boston, Massachusetts; but spent her early years in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. Early in her life, her parents instilled the importance of quality education. Having grown up with a nurturing family, accessible educational resources and a diverse community encouraged her career development early on. She is determined to provide this nurturing environment for the next generation of minority scientists.

In Nigeria, Dr. Olaleye grew up witnessing firsthand, how underlying disparities in socioeconomic status, educational attainment, health status, and lack of access to basic resources and infrastructures, impacted her peers who were less privileged. These inequities troubled her and sparked her passion to pursue a career in minority health and health disparities research.

This passion was further inspired when she moved back to the U.S. and encountered deeper disparities in health care among underrepresented minorities (URMs) and underserved communities. Thus, she embarked on doctoral studies in pharmacology at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to discover and develop potential therapeutic interventions for infectious diseases that disproportionately impact these vulnerable populations. Dr. Olaleye wants to be a major contributor to training and workforce development for the next generation of URMs in the educational pipeline.

Dr. Olaleye’s research focuses on the discovery and development of novel therapeutic interventions using advanced biomedical tools. She integrates pharmacoepidemiology with innovative public health strategies to address health inequities and disparities that exist in racial and ethnic minorities, including other underserved and vulnerable populations.

Q & A with Dr. Omonike Arike Olaleye

What is the center’s research goal, purpose and aim?
The overall goal of the Center for Biomedical and Minority Health Research (CBMHR) at Texas Southern University (TSU) is to support basic biomedical research for diseases that disproportionately impact underrepresented minority (URM) populations by enhancing research infrastructure and fostering scientific advances for early stage investigators. The aims of the CBMHR program are to (1) enhance TSU’s biomedical research capability through continuous advanced infrastructure building and development; (2) equip investigators to secure competitive extramural support for biomedical research, particularly on diseases that disproportionately impact URM populations; (3) promote professional development for new and early career investigators; (4) foster an environment conducive to scientific inquiry that promotes new basic science research focused on minority health and addresses health disparities; and (5) provide enhanced mechanisms for the development of collaborations and partnerships with community-based organizations. With over 709 ethnically diverse faculty members, TSU has recruited and retained a large, talented and diverse pool of faculty, including URMs focused on addressing health disparity concerns within its geographical location in the greater Houston area.

How is the center advancing the science and health of disparity populations? Are you seeing specific changes in particular communities or groups?  
Through this U54 RCMI award from the NIMHD, TSU continues to advance the science of health disparities research through an innovative multi-pronged approach involving the active engagement of our community. Specifically, the CBMHR Community Engagement Core (CEC) directly serves Harris County, the third most populous county in the nation, and the area around Houston, the fourth largest city in the nation. In addition, the greater Houston area is considered one of the most ethnically diverse metropolitan regions in the nation, consisting largely of URMs. TSU plays a strategic role in Harris County and the greater Houston area because of our deep-rooted relationship with our URM community. We have a long history of community engagement outreach efforts addressing health disparities through established partnerships and collaborations with healthcare systems, federally qualified health centers, community-based organizations and partnering academic institutions. We are already leveraging TSU’s many long-standing partnerships and collaborations to improve minority health and address health disparities. For example, we recently signed a major collaborative agreement and memorandum of understanding with Baylor College of Medicine to implement a comprehensive strategy to recruit and retain URMs for clinical trials and address inequitable health outcomes affecting URMs. The CEC is led by Dr. Veronica Ajewole and an excellent team of multidisciplinary faculty from TSU and other partnering institutions.

Together, we provide joint health education seminars and research education forums, and disseminate research findings from our institutions through seminars, conferences, mass media, including the KTSU radio station, CBMHR-Community Engagement Core’s social media platforms and TSU website. These strategic activities address health concerns of the community and increase research participation among URMs that have been underserved. The collective strengths of the CBMHR cores, innovative research projects, structured career enhancement program and integrated community engagement makes the Center a synergistic, first-of-its-kind resource at TSU and Texas Medical Center (TMC), the largest medical complex in the world. We are starting to see increased engagement of our communities with CBMHR outreach opportunities and improved access to resources at TMC.

In the research you are doing, what has surprised you about the discoveries from your center and its impact? Please provide a couple of examples.
My research focuses on the discovery and development of novel therapeutics for the treatment of infectious diseases that disproportionately impact URMs and maternal and child health (MCH) populations. Using advanced biomedical and pharmacoepidemiological tools, we discover and characterize drugs for the potential treatment of diseases that disproportionately impact minorities and vulnerable populations.

To date, one of the most surprising findings from our innovative research center is the serendipitous discovery of five potent inhibitors targeting the novel severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the causative agent of COVID-19, that has infected up to 100 million people worldwide. We have progressed in characterizing two of these therapeutics, which are clinically approved drugs that could be repurposed for prophylactic and treatment purposes in the fight against COVID-19. We are currently working with the NIH/NIAID to fund and implement Phase 2 clinical trials. Rapid optimization and clinical advancement of these drugs are underway to potentially accelerate antiviral therapy against COVID-19.

This is a major breakthrough for the CBMHR and my infectious diseases drug discovery laboratory at TSU. Considering the drastic COVID-19 health disparities in the U.S., we are eager to see the potential impact of these drugs in COVID-19 patients. We hope to be a major contributor to the resolution of the COVID-19 pandemic by providing therapeutic agents that could possibly treat and/or prevent COVID-19, thus reducing the current public health burden. In addition, the relatively low cost and common availability of these drugs, would make them highly affordable to the general public, with an excellent cost-to-benefit profile.

One of TSU’s long-term goals is to become a leader in academic drug discovery and preclinical drug development at TMC and in the greater Houston area, developing new interventions that protect the URMs and vulnerable populations we serve, and to subsequently serve as a point of access for health care education and communication of health care advances for URM populations in the greater Houston area. The CBMHR is aligned to position TSU to achieve this goal by providing a comprehensive, integrated and centralized infrastructure and high quality capabilities for advanced biomedical research innovation in minority health and health disparities.

What inspired you to become a researcher in minority health and health disparities?
I was inspired by my faith in God, and my own birth story. My mom had a high-risk pregnancy with me in Nigeria, a country that has significantly high rates of maternal and infant mortality. During this time, the combination of factors such as place of birth, access to highly skilled physicians, advanced medical infrastructure, and affordable health care made a significant difference between life and death. Because of the risk to my mom’s life and lack of advanced infrastructure, a decision was made to terminate her pregnancy. However, a phone call to a compassionate and excellent physician, Dr. Barton in the Boston Lying-In Hospital (now Brigham and Women’s Hospital) made all the difference. My mom came to the U.S. and safely delivered me. This story inspired me to become a researcher in minority health and health disparities, specifically addressing the gaps in MCH populations.

It is well known that in the U.S., Black mothers are more likely to die during childbirth than mothers in other racial and ethnic minority groups. Therefore, I have made it my life’s work to develop interventions that prevent maternal and infant mortality in these communities. Recently, I had the great privilege of returning to Boston to conduct studies in pharmacoepidemiology at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. This not only brought me back full circle to my beginnings, but inspired me further to close the gaps and inequities in MCH, particularly in my home territory of Houston and Harris County, which suffer significantly with poor MCH outcomes. Currently at TSU, I provide leadership for the Maternal and Child Health Student Training for Academic Readiness and Success (MCH STARS) program. To date, up to 100 MCH trainees/research interns have enrolled in and successfully completed the MCH STARS certificate. They have written many publications including recent studies on the impact of social determinants of health on MCH disparities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Majority of our MCH trainees have transitioned successfully to the MCH/public health workforce and/or graduate schools.

How do we encourage the next generation of scientists?
As a professor, I am passionate about teaching, training and mentoring health professionals to address the underlying causes of health inequities and develop interventions to eliminate existing disparities for racial/ethnic minorities and vulnerable MCH populations. I encourage the next generation of scientists by supporting mentoring and workforce development programs that actively model and integrate successful mentoring strategies and professional development opportunities. I provide early exposure to URMs through innovative programs supported by NIMHD such as the RCMI. For example, with the RCMI funding at TSU, we successfully implemented a structured and collaborative faculty-peer mentoring program entitled: The Collaborative TSU Experience and Academic Mentoring in RCMI (TEAMRCMI). TEAMRCMI is a structured mentorship program that provides a comprehensive, transformative and sustainable pathway to excellence in the biomedical sciences, minority health research and health disparities through post-doctoral fellows and early-stage faculty professional development and mentorship. This novel collaborative program majorly targets URMs and has already begun to impact our faculty and research scientists as evidenced by increased grant applications, funded grants, peer-reviewed publications, and enhancement of research projects focused on health disparities and minority health.

Moreover, we have to start early in the educational continuum. We have to involve URM communities—the teachers, academic institutions and families. These programs have to engage the youngest students in K-12, all the way through college, graduate, and post-graduate students to early stage investigators. In addition, we have to raise awareness in the next generation about the advanced infrastructure, exciting scientific opportunities and innovative biomedical research tools in minority health research to address the fundamental social inequities causing health disparities in URM populations. To date, I have mentored over 100 diverse individuals, who have progressed successfully in their academics and/or professional career.

What do you envision as the future of minority health and health disparities research?
With the emergence of precision and population health, I envision a nation where URMs have increased access to affordable health care, improved targeted therapies, and novel interventions for minority health are rapidly deployed and advanced. I foresee an acceleration in the closing of major gaps in health disparities research. I envision a future with more URMs in the educational pipeline, scientific genealogy and health professions workforce addressing diseases that disproportionately impact URMs. Ultimately, a collaborative, multidisciplinary and systemic approach addressing the underlying causative mechanisms of health inequities will transform the educational, translational and social economics continuum, to significantly improve minority health care.

Page updated February 23, 2021