The Accelerating Excellence In Translational Science (AXIS)Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science

Dr. Bita Amani

Dr. Bita Amani reminds us that social inequalities create poor health outcomes. Looking at the relationship between health and inequality from both a global and local perspective, Dr. Amani wants to better understand exactly how this happens and use this information to improve health in disenfranchised populations.

Dr. Amani has a BS from Johns Hopkins University as well as a Master of Health Science from their School of Hygiene & Public Health. She went on to complete her Ph.D. in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she also completed a postdoctoral fellowship. Since 2010, Dr. Amani has served as Assistant Professor in the Urban Public Health Program at CDU. She is also Co-Chair and board member of the Health Committee of the Youth Justice Coalition.

In pursuing her research goals, Dr. Amani uses a variety of research approaches, including both biostatistical tools as well as qualitative approaches such as discourse analysis methods. “ I’m always asking myself how I can pull from this arsenal of tools that I’ve developed to better get at the question of how society’s structural failings impact health. ”

Dr. Amani is currently the Principal Investigator on an AXIS project studying the health impacts of incarceration on Los Angeles youth of color. “ Incarcerated youth are overrepresented when it comes to poor health outcomes, such as asthma, and underrepresented when it comes to access to vital needs that determine good health such as nutritious foods, ” notes Dr. Amani. Utilizing focus groups and in-depth personal interviews, Dr. Amani and her community partner, Youth Justice Coalition, are seeking to understand the potential mechanisms that lead to poorer health among youth of color and how confinement actually works to create these health disparities. Dr. Amani challenges the prominent biomedical model that locates sickness primarily within the individual; she argues that we would benefit from shifting the discussion to the very “ sickness ” of these institutions.

In a similar vein, another of her ongoing projects, with Dr. Paul Robinson of CDU, is looking at the role prison development has played in the development of valley fever (caused by the fungus Coccidioidomycosis). Dr. Amani explains, “ We know that prisons are places where soil is exposed, providing a conducive environment for catching this infectious disease. ” Using techniques of geographic information systems, Dr. Amani and colleagues are using maps and GIS technology to show that the prison boom in California is associated with the incidence and prevalence of Valley Fever. This finding partly challenges claims by the current prison administration that people of color are more likely to get valley fever on the basis of presumed genetic susceptibility.

Dr. Amani is also currently working with Dr. Norweeta Milburn (PI) on a study and intervention with formerly incarcerated youth. The STRIVE project (Support To Reunite, Involve and Value Each Other) aims to intervene with youth leaving the juvenile justice system through a reentry family-based intervention. Such family interventions have previously been shown to decrease mental health symptoms in adolescents.

These interests naturally funnel into Dr. Amani’s local community project (funded by a grant from CDU). As part of this project, a group from Free LA High School (in South Los Angeles) recently attended a series of workshops at CDU. This high school, founded in 2007 to address the “ School to Prison ” pipeline phenomena, serves youth that may have been suspended, expelled, arrested and/or incarcerated. Some of the goals of the project are building awareness around issues of health disparities, incorporating alternative health practices into everyday life, and promoting interest in post-secondary education in the health and medical sciences. Explains Dr. Amani, “ We are trying to build connections between social and political issues young people are already familiar with and how they influence health. Health is political.” Further workshops will aim at providing young people tools to combat depression, anxiety, and stressors from their environment.

Dr. Amani speaks highly of her connections at CDU. She notes, “ The reason why I came to Drew was that they understood the centrality of institutions, specifically racial hierarchies, in producing health injustices, and that’s why their interventions have tried to involve the environment and the community . . . I don’t have to explain why I’m drawing these connections, and that’s invaluable to me. ”