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From Harvard to HBCU, Scholar Stays Committed to the Cause

Dr. Huijun Li left Harvard University earlier this year to take a position as an assistant professor in the psychology department at Florida A&M University. After arriving at FAMU, she was awarded a $250,000 research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

At Harvard, Li served as director of multicultural research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. A native of China, Li received a master’s degree in applied linguistics from Kunming University of Science and Technology. She has a Ph.D. in school psychology from the University of Arizona and is a nationally certified school psychologist. She remains a visiting assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School.

Li discusses the reasons for her recent move and her expansive research project that includes scientists and scholars at three universities on two continents.

DI: Why did you decide to leave Harvard for Florida A&M?

HL: The major reason is that the research interests of faculty members in the psychology department here match mine β€” they are studying mental health disparities in minority populations.

Also, as a researcher I would see very few people from minority backgrounds on the research team. So, I take it as my professional responsibility to train as many potential researchers from minority backgrounds to actively conduct and be involved in research. Otherwise, the research results might be biased.

DI: What is the focus of your research?

HL: My research theme centers around reducing mental health disparities; specifically, I do studies on different kinds of risk factors that are related to the onset and progression of mental illness, severe mental illness, such as psychotic disorders in particular, of people from different cultural backgrounds. These risk factors could include discrimination, stigma, family atmosphere, barriers to services and help-seeking behaviors. How they affect the mental health of the individual and how they affect the treatment outcome, and it can be related to their social and role functions.

Each individual has a role in their community or in society, so because of mental illness a student may not be able to function in that role β€” they may not be able to come to class or to get a degree because of the mental illness.

DI: How did the NIMH grant come about and what does it allow you to do?

HL: I came to Florida A&M in the spring semester. I had applied for the grant at Harvard Medical School before I arrived, and we received formal notification of the award on April 6. The full grant will come to Florida A&M with two subcontracts, one going to Harvard Medical School and the other to Shanghai Mental Health Center, China.

It is for an international collaboration. The goal is to build research capacity in low- and middle-income countries β€” reducing health disparities. We chose China because of its large base population and 30 percent youth and young adult population, who are most vulnerable to mental health disorders. I will take the lead in collaborating with researchers from Shanghai Mental Health Center at Shanghai Jia Tong University and Harvard Medical School to provide research training in China. It is a brand new research program for youth who are at risk for psychosis.

DI: What part will FAMU play?

HL: I represent FAMU for this particular grant. Based on the budget, I may involve other faculty and students to work on the project. We are going this month to Shanghai Mental Health Center to begin training, and we will collect preliminary data in August. In October the researchers from Shanghai Mental Health Center will come to the United States β€” to Harvard and FAMU β€” to continue their training.

DI: What about teaching?

HL: I am teaching undergraduates. They are great students, eager to learn. I think I can really make a difference, especially in terms of encouraging them to attend graduate school. At Harvard I was doing mostly research and conducting a seminar on multicultural competence in-service training.

DI: What are the long-term goals of the grant?

HL: We are excited because although it is a two-year grant, we hope to develop it into a larger, five-year grant. I also would like to involve some of my students and invite colleagues in the research process. Another goal is to disseminate research findings in the larger community. I will be conducting workshops to help Chinese immigrant parents work with their children, and I will be making a presentation in the [FAMU] School of Allied Health on barriers to mental health services for minority children. And sometime next year we will begin working on the larger five-year grant application.

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