September 12, 2023

Assistant Professor Kimberly McKee secures funding to study the environmental and biosocial effects of structural racism on birth outcomes

McKee will team with Family Medicine colleagues, as well as experts from Michigan State University and Wayne State University, to conduct the study.

Kimberly S. McKee, Ph.D., MPH, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan, has received a Research Catalyst and Innovation Program grant through the Office of the Vice President of Research at U-M to study the environmental and biosocial effects of structural racism on birth outcomes.

Kimberly McKee PhD MPH
Assistant Professor Kimberly S. McKee, Ph.D., MPH

U-M’s OVPR provided $450,000 in funding, which will be distributed among seven different teams university-wide conducting anti-racism research projects. OVPR designed its Research Catalyst and Innovation Program, in part, to support research and scholarship that addresses complex societal racial inequalities, with a goal to inform actions that achieve equity and justice. To read about the other projects, click here.

McKee will lead fellow Family Medicine researchers on the project, including Professor Ananda Sen, Ph.D., director of the Quantitative Training, Research and Analysis Core, and biostatistician Beatrice Palazzolo. Additional team members include Assistant Professor Sarah Comstock, Ph.D., of Michigan State University; and Gwendolyn S. Norman, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor Michael Petriello, Ph.D., both of Wayne State University

McKee and colleagues will examine the biological effects of racism by combining multiple measures of structural racism on birth outcomes from the Michigan Archive for Research on Child Health. 

Previous research has traditionally focused on individual-level risk factors such as behavioral and genetic markers on the Black-white disparity in preterm birth and adverse birth outcomes. However, they inadequately explain most variations in adverse birth outcomes, according to McKee and her fellow scientists.

Researchers are now examining social determinants of health, including structural racism and contextual-level factors on birth outcomes. With this project, McKee and colleagues propose to examine cumulative interpersonal and biological effects on birth outcomes. They argue that this strategy responds to recent calls to operationalize racism, rather than race, to address health disparities.

“It’s important as researchers that we look at the whole picture when it comes to understanding why there are disparities between Black and white birth outcomes,” McKee said. “Structural racism and contextual-level factors that affect social determinants of health can reinforce inequitable systems and discriminatory beliefs, values, and distribution of resources. Some of these racist practices can have an impact on a person’s physical environment, their health, and can exacerbate existing social inequities.

“We are grateful to the OVPR for providing funding to support this critical research project.”

Since the program launched in 2021, OVPR has awarded $1.4 million in anti-racism grants to diverse teams of researchers from across U-M. The OVPR grants are jointly administered and advanced in partnership with the National Center for Institutional Diversity’s Anti-Racism Collaborative which aims to support and amplify the work of anti-racism scholars at U-M.

“These grants allow interdisciplinary teams of U-M researchers to extensively study the effects of structural racism across southeast Michigan, which has far-reaching implications for communities across the country,” said Trachette Jackson, assistant vice president for research – diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and University Diversity and Social Transformation professor.

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