HomeAchievementsPublic Health Professor Earns Fulbright, Explores Health Equity and Social Justice

Public Health Professor Earns Fulbright, Explores Health Equity and Social Justice

Earlier this year, Dr. Anuli Njoku expanded her already distinguished portfolio, adding the significant distinction of Fulbright Specialist to her long list of accolades. The recognition, granted by the U.S. Department of State and the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, landed the associate professor of public health a unique opportunity to share her research on health inequities at Brazil’s Universidade Regional do Cariri for two weeks this past September.

Njoku is one of over 400 U.S. citizens who share expertise with host institutions
abroad through the Fulbright Specialist Program each year. Recipients of Fulbright Specialist awards are selected on the basis of academic and professional achievement, demonstrated leadership in their field, and their potential to foster long-term cooperation between institutions in the U.S. and abroad.

Njoku’s work closely examines systemic health disparities and opportunities for collaborative advancement, and includes topics like Black maternal morbidity and mortality in the United States and social determinants of health and racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19. But the headlining research, and the most coveted by her host institution, was the professor’s connection between Afro-Brazilian spiritual belief systems and Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) among Black Brazilians. 

“I have always been very passionate about public health and looking at how it affects everyday life… in particular how it intersects with various cultures and beliefs,” said Njoku, who credits her Fulbright Specialist journey as beginning in 2021.

At the time, her abstract, which focused on teaching students about health disparity and diversity in public health, earned her an invitation to present at the Twenty-second International Conference on Diversity in Organizations, Communities & Nations in Curacao the following June. 

“I immediately regretted submitting it,” Njoku recalls. “Memorial Day weekend was coming up and I was supposed to be going on a trip to Maine with my family. When my abstract was accepted, I suddenly needed to figure out how to make it happen.” 

At the time, much of the world remained in a heightened state of pandemic caution, adding another complicating factor to travel and potentially impacting her return timeline, should she contract Covid-19. She also worried how she would manage in a place she had never been, and where she wasn’t familiar with the language.

“I would have to test negative in order to get back home to my family,” explains Njoku. “I had no idea where I would even get a Covid test.”

But while Njoku could think of plenty of reasons not to go, she opted instead to take a leap of faith, recognizing the gift of opportunity.

“Interestingly, everything I worried about didn’t happen,” she reflects. “Instead, I had a wonderful time, met amazing people, and was flooded with kindness from strangers.” The experience would in fact predicate much of the work on which her Fulbright credentials were built.

Dr. Anuli Njoku, center, while at Brazil’s Universidade Regional do Cariri for her Fulbright presentation in September 2022

While in Curacao, Njoku’s presentation was attended by a Tennessee professor who specializes in Spanish and Portuguese. The professor encouraged Njoku to share her research at Artefatos da Cultura Negra (Artifacts of Black Culture), which is held every year in Brazil. She explained to Njoku that while the conference was well-represented by fields like education, history, religion, and the arts, there wasn’t a strong focus on public health — a void Njoku could help fill.

“First, she invited me to a virtual meeting with Brazilian university professors to see where our interests overlapped. They were interested in Sickle Cell Disease, spirituality, and social justice. I am interested in public health, health equity, and social justice. It was a match.”

After spending some time researching Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) occurrence in Brazil, Njoku  developed an abstract in Portuguese with the help of an online translator and began planning her trip for September 2023.

By the time she left, Njoku had unearthed data connecting the disproportionate impact of SCD among Black populations to the 300-year slave trade in Brazil, and the creation of a demographic profile of Brazilian society with a high presence of African descendants. The inequities in access, availability, and quality of health services, she says, reflect Brazil’s deep regional and social inequalities.

“We need to address the health inequities between White and Black populations in Brazil, understand the role of racism as a contributor to differential health outcomes, and explore traditional and healing sources that can address this disparity,” says Njoku, citing that Afro-Brazilian spiritual and healing traditions like Candomblé have been used to remove health difficulties such as depression, insomnia, and eyesight problems, and have been effective in HIV prevention programs. 

“They are effective, in that partnering with non-governmental organizations and with their counterparts in the communities, they are able to bring life-saving medicine and health practices in culturally appropriate and accepting forms. Historically oppressed populations tend to embrace their heritage for different health concerns and many reject biomedicine since it was forced upon them. In order to ensure optimal health outcomes and achieve health equity for marginalized populations, it is important to deliver culturally astute health care practices.”

Njoku credits going to Curacao as being the pivot point in her research, which she believes could lead to more integrative medicinal approaches in Brazil, in turn saving lives.

“Integrative medicine saves lives, and we can see that in the partnership of the World Bank, World Health Organization and Candomblé (and the other Afro-Brazilian healing traditions) leadership in Brazil.”

Njoku earned her bachelor’s degree in public health from Rutgers University, master’s degree in public health from Boston University, and doctorate in public health from Drexel University. She also has postdoctoral training from Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Dr. Anuli Njoku

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