Oby: From the campus of Harvard Medical School, this is Think Research. A podcast devoted to the stories behind clinical research. I'm Oby.
Brendan: And I'm Brendan, and we are your hosts. Think Research is brought to you by Harvard Catalyst, Harvard University's Clinical and Translational Science Center.
Oby: And by NCATS, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.
Ever wonder how growing up alongside two NFL football players could spark a career and research? In this introductory episode, Dr. Alicia Whittington, Assistant Director of Engagement and Health Equity Research at the football players' Health Study and board member at the Augustus A. White, III Institute for Health care equity walks us through her unique upbringing and journey to community based research.
Next episode, we take a deeper dive into the work being done at the Augustus A. White III Institute for Health care equity. Hi, Dr. Whittington. Welcome to the show. So good to have you here today.
DR. ALICIA WHITTINGTON: Thank you.
Oby: It is such a pleasure to be able to talk to you and hear about your journey to research. So I know a bit about and your family background and education, and feel like it would be great for our listeners to hear before we jump into what keeps you interested in research. So can you just start by telling us a bit about your family history and background.
Alicia Whittington: Sure. Thank you so much. It's so wonderful to be here with you today to talk about my journey, and I appreciate that opportunity. So I am number seven of eight children. And I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri in an area that produced several elite athletes.
Now, the interesting thing is that my parents always had this plan to have a large family. And I used to always ask questions where did this come from? And it stemmed from their upbringing. So the both of them grew up in rural Mississippi. And what I always found really interesting about them is that they grew up 113 miles apart and did not know each other when they were children. But their families went through the same devastating crisis in 1946 when their fathers died.
And so my mom was an infant when her dad died, and my father was about 10 years old when his father died. And he ended up becoming the man of the house. My grandmothers were left with large families. So my dad is one of 11 and my mom was the youngest of 13.
And so with their father's dying prematurely, and I have to mention that they died as a result of lack of access to adequate health care in Mississippi because of their race. And the families struggled after they died. And with that, you see a multi-generational effect.
And so I'm a first generation college graduate. And when I think about just what my family's been through, I always tell everyone that yes I'm a scientist, I'm a musician. But at the core of who I am, I am a storyteller.
And the reason for that is because when I was a little kid, I would sit around the more seasoned members of the family, because they would tell all of these stories about our family history, even as a little girl, I was struck by just all of the hardship that they went through and also the resilience that they have and had because I'm able to now do all of these amazing things when they didn't have that opportunity, but yet they remain positive. And they just knew that future generations would be able to do all the things.
And so I knew as a child that this thing that I didn't know was called health equity health disparities. But I thought about it all throughout my education. And I knew that it would be a part of my journey, a significant part of my journey.
Oby: Great. Thank you so much for that. And can I ask you a little bit more about your family. So your nuclear family, so your siblings and your parents, and again, I know a little bit about your family history and that background and even as we get into a little bit more about your research today. I think it would be good for people to understand even that.
Alicia Whittington: As you can imagine growing up in a house with lots of siblings. There were lots of entertaining moments. And so my parents had some requirements of us so to speak. We had to focus on academics, and then music was a central part of our family story.
Well, actually when my matter passed away her mom my maternal matter, she left behind a little something, and then my mom and my dad used that to get us a piano. And that piano is still in our house.
And so we took piano lessons, and then we had to pick a supplementary instrument. And mine were violin and viola. And so that really enriched the journey as well.
But then can you imagine having piano lessons on a Friday afternoon though when all of your friends are outside playing and having a great time, and you can hear them as you're like sitting there waiting patiently for your piano lesson? And so that happened to one of my older brothers.
And so here's an example of where peer pressure can be a really good thing. So he went to my dad one day and said, hey dad, can I play football? And he only wanted to do it because his friends were playing. And he never was interested in sports.
And so my dad said, ''No, you'll get hurt. And you have piano lessons on Fridays. You're not quitting that.'' But it was when my brother came back with a different strategy. And he said, ''But dad, I can earn a scholarship to college.'' In modern day, if you talk to my dad right now, he will laugh when hearing the story. Because my dad said that in that moment, he thought about it. He was like, ''Oh my gosh, there's so many of you.'' College to be paid for it through an athletic scholarship. Go right ahead, son.
So my brother showed up at practice, and he tells a story that he didn't even know what to get which pads and just all the things that come with the football experience. But he did have, and he still has it. Is this incredible work ethic.
Oby: So how many of you are there? I don't think we got to that. How many siblings do you have?
Alicia Whittington: Eight of us. So I have one sister. She actually works in research in Chicago, and she's brilliant. So the thing about my sister is that I would not be where I am academically. And also my everyday lexicon. My sister was the type, she was, still is a voracious reader. Always wanted to do everything she did.
Unfortunately, one of those things that I tried to do was, she studied voice. And so when I was maybe like four or five, I decided that I wanted a voice lesson. And then I figured out very quickly that was not my thing. I felt so stressed as a little kid. I was just like, ''Oh, my God. She's good at this. I don't want to do this. I'm too shy for this.'' But she was the one that would tell me, ''Hey, here's some cool books to read. But she always encourage learning, and so I appreciate her example even today.
And then actually, it's because of her that I ended up playing the violin because she played the cello. So I was able to start violin lessons before I turn five. And it's still a part of my life. So that's pretty cool. And then I have six brothers. So they all work in lots of different fields. As you can imagine, lots of personalities, and they're all really creative too.
So revisiting the story where my dad didn't want my brother to stop the piano lessons. I speak about how it was a tangible example saying my brother worked really hard and all the opportunities led to a great place. My parents also saw that tangible example. And so in turn, my other brother started playing sports.
So my brother that's 18 months older than me, he went on to play in the NFL as well. However, his career was cut short due to an injury. And when I think about that experience, it's really informative as a scientist. And then let's get to the youngest of the Whittington family.
So my younger brother had all of the experiences playing football much younger, and then he had that network of just the football world. And he also became an elite athlete. When my brother started doing well in football, it just added another dynamic to the family that inspired me to work that much harder in school, because his journey has shown me that hard work does pay off. And the harder he worked, the more we were really impressed.
And he also had that resilience built in. And it's just been amazing to see his life unfold and actually my other siblings too, and to see how our paths cross. And so working in this space and especially leading community and player engagement, I will see a lot of people that I knew from years ago. And it just reminds me that my journey through all of this had a purpose.
Oby: So even as you talk about past crossing and this history of yours. This really rich history. And you started to touch on your educational journey and your research, and I know that this is all tied in. So what took you there. What brought you to this research. And then maybe you can talk a little bit about some of the research you were doing disagree.
Alicia Whittington: So when I was in high school, actually, it goes back to elementary school. I was always into science fair projects and then I remember in junior high, I was in the science class. And we pretty much the entire quarter or maybe the semester was built around creating our science fair project. And I was so serious about mine. I did get a blue ribbon at the St. Louis Science Fair like outside of our school, which I thought was cool.
And then I got this special ribbon from a chemical company. And I was like, see, I'm on my way. And I was like, science is cool. So in high school, I had some incredible teachers. And some of them shared with me different opportunities for summer programs. And so I started conducting research the summer after my sophomore year. It was a program at Washington University's Medical School. And we even had cadaver lab dissection and exams every Friday. That was fun.
And then the years after that, a few years, well, few Summers after that I was in the Monsanto Scholars Program at St. Louis University, where I also conducted research in the lab. So I had all of this really neat experience before I got to college. And that opened up more doors.
When I applied to colleges, and this is where my sister comes in. She asked to see my list, and the list did not get her stamp of approval. And she said, ''Oh, you need to add Wellesley College onto that list.'' And I said, ''OK, fine. Whatever.'' So at any rate, I ended up going to Wellesley College in the fall of 1997.
And what a journey? And looking back on it, I didn't appreciate fully what I was getting at the time and what was being instilled in me. And the thing about the Wellesley experience is that it teaches you that that's OK. Because now 21 years after graduation I'm still a part of the Wellesley experience. And I made the best friends. And I had incredible academic advisors, mentors that I still keep in touch with today.
After college, I was a research assistant at the Chan School in public health. And I trained with some of the most incredible scientists, epidemiologist. And they were the ones that encouraged me to go back to school. They said, ''You can do this.'' And the individuals that I worked with were at various stages in their career. Some were doctoral students, some postdocs, someone in the faculty tenure track. And I just thought, Oh, this is cool.
And the thing about that is when you see something happening before you. It's just like when I talk about my brother and his hard work. When you see those tangible examples really ignites something in you, where it's like, OK, I can do that too. I can't do the football thing, though. That's a no. I just worked a little harder.
And so I ended up at Yale. And I earned a Master's in Public Health and Chronic Disease Epidemiology. And then after, that I worked in San Francisco, directing the longevity consortium. And then later on, I ended up in New Orleans at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, where I earned a PhD in Health Systems Management. And ended up focusing on a little fun project for my dissertation on high school football players and concussion knowledge and education and perceptions of injury risk. So that was fun.
Oby: So you talked a bit about your degrees and what led you through that journey. Can you talk to us about part of what I'm hearing you say and what we've talked about previously is incorporating the community in research, and why that is important and effective? Can you talk to us a little bit about that and why it is so important?
Alicia Whittington: Yes. While I was in the process of figuring out my dissertation defense and getting prepared for that, I had this whole daily routine regarding my dissertation, and it was to focus but on one particular day. I started receiving emails, phone calls, text messages from people, and I couldn't understand like what's going on.
Then I looked at the messages, and people were asking, ''Have you seen this?'' And I was like, ''What?'' And then I started opening the links and it was a press release announcing that Harvard would be starting what is now the Football Players' Health Study at Harvard University. And it talked a little bit about the plans for the study, and when I read their plans for incorporating the community into the research.
That's when I knew that this is where I wanted to work. Being a family member that's from the community, and I was 14 years old when my brother made it to an NFL roster. And as you can imagine, family is so important to football players. Their career trajectories. And as I like to say, football it's a team sport. It's a family sport. It's also a community sport.
And I witnessed throughout all of my brother's journeys in football that community was incredibly important. And I've learned so much as a scientist. But then also being the little sister to elite athletes is really informative for me as a scientist. And so I really wanted to be a part of this and present day I learned a lot from the community. And the community has actually given me a lot of support.
Oby: So in addition to the work that you do at Harvard, you also are working with the Augustus A. white III Institute for Health Care Equity. Can you talk to us a bit about the work you are doing with them and honestly a bit about the Institute itself.
Alicia Whittington: Sure. So this relates back to my work with the Football Players' Health Study. So when I got to the point in my career where I was tasked with, OK, how do we study health equity in this study population? And I sat down again with papers and I was just thinking like, OK, how do I do this? I need a mentor. Who can I ask?
And so our faculty were really busy at the time, and then I looked over and I saw Dr. White's assistant. And I walked over and I said, ''Excuse me. Can I please get a meeting with Dr. White on the books? I have some questions for him.'' Because I'd heard so much about him and you know his work as this incredible pioneer in all of the spaces that he's worked. He is an orthopedic surgeon. He also has a PhD in Biomechanics from the Karolinska Institute. And he cares about people.
The thing that is so fascinating to me is when he begins a talk, he addresses the crowd as my fellow humans. And really puts a calm in the atmosphere, and it's so genuine. And his life has really just been remarkable. And so his assistant so kind just like him. And she said, sure. And so I'll spare you the details of the first meeting.
But Dr. White, he smiled when I told him what I was hoping to accomplish and my journey. Like I told him some of the same stories I've shared with you. And he just lit up and he said, ''Alicia, I'm not trying to add more work to my plate. But this is really incredible, what you're working on.''
And so since then, he mentored me. He gives me homework assignments every time I meet with him. He gave me one yesterday to read a book when I'm really excited to read this one. And this sort of mentor-mentee relationship. It evolved and so little over a year ago. He reached out to me and share with me that they were creating this Health Equity Institute. And asked if I would serve on the founding board of directors.
And given all of the advice that he's given me the wisdom he shared, I told him it would be an honor to serve in this capacity. And so the institute is such a fascinating and much needed entity. So on our website, you will see that if you fall within I think, it's like 10 categories, where if you identify by them you're more likely to receive disparate care. And so why does that matter?
So Health Equity itself is looking at opportunities for everyone to achieve optimal health. But those things that keep us from getting their health disparities. And so the institute has created this platform to not only share information, but to also learn from the community and figure out the ways to make an impact.
And on our website, you'll see that there are recordings from programs that we have conducted and looking at total health. So the first one was on mind body spirit and a healthy approach to the holidays. And then we had a couple of webinars on the connection between music and health.
Oby: This is great. We'll have to have you back some other time to really talk a bit more about the institute and dig into some other things. So we're coming to the end of this podcast. But something that we always like to ask people or leave with is a nugget from the person we're talking to the listeners to other researchers. And I think one of the things that we talked about before and that I'd like to ask is how do you balance your passions, your research, your everyday life, and make it all work because you're doing a lot.
Brendan: Thank you. Yes, it is a lot. But I'm having a lot of fun. So one of my Alicia-isms as I call it, is that I strive to learn something new every day, whether it's reading a book or just learning from a colleague or even learning from myself. And sometimes it's things that I realize like when I was a little girl, and realized the singing would not be my thing.
Even today I find that what I'm not so great at this. And so that's informative. I'm still a musician. I have my violin here in Boston. Yeah, in fact, this conversation has inspired me to just tune up those strings and maybe play a couple of songs this evening.
Oby: Next time we'll have you play on the podcast.
Alicia Whittington: We'll see how the practicing goes.
Alicia Whittington: I must also leave you with this nugget. So in my first job after college, as I mentioned working at the School of Public Health as a research assistant. And my boss at the time shared a nugget with me that I never forgot. He said, ''Alicia, you need to find that thing. The thing that when you wake up in the morning you cannot wait to get to work or to your desk to work on it. And when you found that thing, you found your purpose.''
And I thought about that all throughout my journey. But it really came to fruition when I was a PhD student at Tulane. And it was after my academic advisor said, you know what? This is what you should be working on. And I wasn't convinced. And so I sat in my apartment with lots of papers. And I just started reading about the history of football, sports injuries, health disparities, health equity, all the things. And I found myself reading so many papers probably hundreds of them.
But at any rate, I lost sleep over reading this stuff because it was so fascinating to me. And I said, you know what? This is my purpose. This is my calling. And then to be able to come back to Harvard where I started my career, the institution that inspires so much and gave me so much feedback as Dr. Whittington first generation first in my family is really amazing.
Oby: It is amazing. And I thank you for leaving us with that nugget. So thank you so much for joining us on the podcast Dr. Whittington.
Alicia Whittington: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Oby: It's been a pleasure to have this conversation with you, and we sincerely will have you back.
Alicia Whittington: Thank you. I'm looking forward to it.
Brendan: Thank you for listening. If you've enjoyed this podcast, please rate us on iTunes and help us spread the word about the amazing research taking place across the Harvard Community.
Oby: To learn more about the guests on this episode, visit our website, catalyst.harvard.edu/thinkresearch.