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Recommendations for Behavioral Scientists in the 21st Century: An Interview with Chanita Hughes Halbert

Chanita Hughes Halbert, PhD
Chanita Hughes Halbert, PhD

Maria C. Swartz, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Cancer SIG member

The Society of Behavioral Medicine's (SBM's) 2016 Annual Meeting will include sessions focused on health disparities and precision medicine. The Cancer Special Interest Group (SIG) interviewed Chanita Hughes Halbert, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), to address these priorities and obtain her advice for early career investigators.

Dr. Hughes Halbert has made several seminal contributions to the fields of cancer control, minority health, and health disparities. For instance, Dr. Hughes Halbert's research established evidence needed to increase access to genetic counseling and testing for BRCA1/2 mutations in African American women. In addition, she was the first to evaluate the long-term effects of genetic testing for BRCA1/2 mutations in racially diverse women.

In recognition of her leadership and accomplishments, Dr. Hughes Halbert was recently awarded the AT&T Distinguished Endowed Chair in Cancer Equity at MUSC and is an appointed member of the National Cancer Institute Board of Scientific Advisors. She was also the past chairperson of the Minorities in Cancer Research Council in the American Association for Cancer Research. Prior to being recruited to MUSC, Dr. Hughes Halbert held multiple leadership roles at the University of Pennsylvania, including serving as the Director of the West Philadelphia Consortium to address disparities.

Dr. Hughes Halbert's responses are summarized below.

Cancer SIG: As a prominent leader in addressing minority health disparities and health care access for medically underserved populations, what are your suggestions about how we can best position our work to reach the greatest number of the diverse population of cancer patients and cancer survivors?

Hughes Halbert: Developing partnerships and using them to generate research ideas within community settings is really important. You have to develop partnerships in the community to identify priorities and develop interventions that will address these issues. In some instances, there is a disconnect between community priorities and new initiatives developed by funding agencies. Through our work on risk communication interventions funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, we found that establishing partnerships with community-based organizations is important to reach medically underserved populations. You have to think about where the underserved go to seek care. It is important to establish partnerships with diverse health care practices and providers in addition to working with community organizations that address health promotion and disease prevention. These stakeholders have different insights that can positively impact the research design, implementation of the study, and evaluation of data.

Cancer SIG: In regard to the current precision medicine initiative (PMI), what are your thoughts? How do you see behavioral scientists fitting in?

Hughes Halbert: Defining precision medicine to include social and psychological factors in addition to genomics gives behavioral scientists a seat at the table. One of the key issues we can address is how people think about participating in this type of initiative and work as part of a transdisciplinary team to develop effective strategies for ensuring that all groups make informed choices about enrolling in PMI studies. There are also opportunities for behavioral scientists to conduct research that examines how social and cultural issues, and lifestyle and environmental exposures contribute to health outcomes, especially in diverse populations. To include all populations, I will go back to the point of partnerships and reaching people where they are getting care.

Cancer SIG: Given your experience, what are some of your suggestions for early career investigators?

Hughes Halbert: Focus and persistence are the two most important things. Early career investigators can be presented with multiple opportunities for research; this has the potential to be distracting, so focus is critical. It enables you to develop a body of work that tells the story of your research program. Think programmatically. Find your overarching goal and identify research questions and studies that are important to develop your program. Also develop partnerships and collaborations inside academia. It helps to have a group that works really well from a programmatic perspective, because it can reduce the pressure of writing grants alone. Persistence is important because rejection is part of the process, but, also know when to move on. In terms of funding, target the funding initiatives and establish a relationship with program officers. Program officers are your resources! To be competitive for career development and/or research grants, apply for internal funding and foundation grants to collect preliminary data.